Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

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

Lao Time

The concept of Lao Time might not be automatically familiar, but the concept of Island Time or Tropics Time probably is. The version in Australia, Northern Territory (NT) Time sums it up pretty well. Not Today. Not Tomorrow. Not on Tuesdays. When you are in a place that the pace of life is slower, things just kinda happen if and when they are going to happen.

The reasons for Lao time could be numerous. It might be the stifling heat existent for part of the year, combined with the incapacitating rains for another part. It might be that there is no money to be had in accomplishing things quickly. Perhaps it is a collective action problem, that doing your portion of the chain of steps quickly is wasted effort if no one else is going to be quick about theirs. Maybe it is simply a cultural understanding that family, friends, and fun are more important that work, and things can be completed when you get to them. Or it might just be how things are done here. The ‘why’ is debatable. That the concept is strongly ingrained is not.

I have considered myself to be efficient. ‘Energy minimalist’ is the positive term I put to it. Why do more work to achieve the same result when you can do less? And when I have encountered new people and new cultures they have usually fit into one or the other category in my head. Either people are doing things with greater effort than they need to be, or they are doing thing in the most direct way possible. It’s a simple dichotomy.

That dichotomy, extra effort/inefficiency/short-sightedness vs. minimum effort/efficiency/focus on the long game, is one that is very strongly evident when kayaking.

There are two ways to steer a boat using a paddle. If you want to turn, you can either drag the paddle in the water on that side, or you can paddle harder on the opposite side. Both have the same effect of causing one side of the boat to be slower than the other, thus turning towards the slow side. And both have their appeal. But on this topic I have very strong opinions.

When you drag a paddle you are slowing yourself down. You are working against yourself, canceling out the energy you put in paddling previously. While riding the water brakes seems like the easier option at the immediate time you are doing it, even five seconds later you can see that you have to start paddling again to get back up to speed. Unless you are specifically aiming for an upper body workout, this approach has caused many a squabble in a 2-person kayak (or canoe).

The other option, the clearly correct option, is the one that involves a bit of foresight to minimize the total energy expenditure. Unless you urgently need to slow down, or you are about to crash and need to turn on a point, then paddling on the far side is the better option. You put forth a little more energy up front, but it gets you farther, and you never cancel out energy you have put in or will put in. Everything you do keeps pushing you to your goal.

In my previous kayaking trips, I had seen this dichotomy, and I knew it to be true. That all changed when I kayaked in Laos and came face to face with Lao Time, kayak style.

The local in the steering position of our kayak kept dragging the oar. I questioned why he was doing it for a while. And then I finally saw the truth about the “dichotomy.”

My starting point had made an assumption that was incompatible with Lao Time. There is a third option. And that option is to be an energy minimalist at absolutely every step.

When you need to turn, drag a paddle. You will lose your momentum. Then when it comes time to get going again, don’t paddle. Do not fight the now stagnant momentum. You are on a river. It has a current. And with time, the current will do your work for you. You aren’t trying to get somewhere at a specific time. People here don’t set specific times. People show up when they show up, and they leave when they feel like it. Why rush if you have a natural force working for you?

The world is rotating rather quickly under all of us, and if someone here could put that to use for their benefit they would. The purest expression of Lao time would be jumping and letting the world spin under you rather than walking somewhere.

Lao Time is about the furthest from DC Time that you can get. This is either going to temper me to be more patient or it will get under my skin. Either way it will be a learning experience.

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2016 by in Laos, Luang Namtha.

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