Big Brother Mouse and the Mekong

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January 28th 2019
Published: January 29th 2019
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This morning we are up early - we need to make up for yesterday’s indolence! I think we are probably the first up for breakfast.

We have a Plan A and a Plan B, depending on the availability of boat spaces for the river trip to the Pak Ou caves. Negotiation is key as the trips are highly inflated for all foreigners. We know the price should be around 10 dollars per person so we have a starting point. Our man starts at 40 dollars per person so we bargain hard. It would appear that he won’t do it for any less than 12 - that will do.

OK, we agree with a handshake assuming we will be leaving soon. Not so. He jumps on a scooter, instructing us to wait five minutes, and disappears down the road.

Our man returns. It would appear that we are too late for the morning boat but can we come back at 1pm? Actually yes, and this will suit us better as all the tour groups visit in the morning so it should be much quieter after lunch. It means that we can still catch the morning volunteering stint at the literacy charity, Big Brother Mouse which starts at 9am.

We arrive for the two hour session. Visitors simply turn up, take a seat and very soon they are paired up or even sat in groups with the young people who pitch up to practice their English. Ian spots a shy young man waiting to talk and so they take their chairs into the adjacent room to start their chat. I decide to join them but it isn’t long before others turn up and now we have a group of five Lao students.

The students ask us questions and answer ours. They also have their notebooks with lists of words that they wish to learn to pronounce correctly and/or know the meaning. We start with the word ‘conclusion’. Some words are easier to explain than others. One of the students, ‘Mi’, tells me that she comes here every day to practice English. She is ambitious and wants to go to university, get a good job and then be able to help her family, who are quite poor. Her friend tells me that she hopes to become a lawyer.

The two hour session is both enjoyable and exhausting. The girls ask us if we will be back to attend the evening session. We hadn’t intended to but we say that we will try, if our boat docks in time.

We make our way back to the food stalls, grabbing a light lunch before heading off to the river. We hope we will recognise the boatman that we agreed our deal with earlier - no chance of mistaking him though as he is already looking out for us!

We sit in the shade awaiting the other passengers. You pay me now, states our man. No, I say, not until we are sitting in the boat. OK, OK, he says, not at all offended at the inference that he may be intent on cheating us. BUT, he says, you shhh, shhh when the others arrive. Yes, I understand I say...we look at each other and both laugh knowingly. The truth is, the others have paid his inflated prices so he doesn’t want them to know that they have been fleeced!

We are joined by a Norwegian lady and all three of us are led down to the boat...he definitely wants us to cough up before the others arrive! He takes our cash and goes to collect a family of three with further pleas to shhh, shhh about the money when they arrive!

We are pleased to see that no other passengers are being added to the group and we are indeed, just five adults and a child. The boat sets off up the Mekong at a steady pace. There are lots of sandbanks and rocks that must be negotiated by the boatman and lovely scenery for us to admire. They are also building a new railway bridge, mainly because the old one now only reaches about half way over the river before depositing its lines into the Mekong.

Two hours have passed and we arrive at Pak Ou caves. We visited these caves 16 years ago, but the photos fell victim to a rogue memory card (brand new technology at that time) which would not let us have the pictures back on our return to the UK!

Our boatman parks the boat alongside the others with an amount of shouting, presumably swearing and minor grinding of wooden hulls. We disembark onto a flimsy floating causeway that barely justifies the term - only one at a time we are warned...otherwise it will sink...well at least that’s what we think he is yelling at us as Ian attempts to help me across.

There are still some tour groups in the caves, but not enough to cause serious overcrowding. Entrance fee paid, we begin climbing the steep steps to the caves, and encounter another tourist souvenir gimmick - tiny finches in small bamboo enclosures that you can buy in order to release. The theory is that the birds are netted, placed in the enclosures, sold, released (for good luck) and then probably re-caught! Since purchasing a bird just fuels the system, the only sensible thing to do is not to buy the poor creatures, which seems even more cruel.

The Pak Ou caves are natural formations in limestone outcrops that were inhabited at least 1000 years ago. However the caves became a focal point for Buddhism around 1400AD, with both upper and lower caves featuring hundreds of Buddha statues. The upper cave is the largest, and also the least lit - fortunately we bought our torch to provide sufficient illumination.

All of the tour groups have departed by the time that we re-board our boat and push off downstream. There is still the obligatory visit to a tourist tat village to endure on the return journey, but the villagers are not pushy and everyone is back on board in 20 minutes.

We had intended to go back to the second the Big Brother Mouse session at 5pm - but we are still chugging downstream. We land and hurry to the Centre, 25 minutes late, and find the place buzzing with many volunteers and students. One of the Centre’s assistants spots us, and quickly beckons us to the rear courtyard where we are introduced to two 20 year olds, both of whom have only been studying English for 4 months. Whilst enthusiastic, their grasp of English is much less than our group from this morning...although still pretty impressive for such a short amount of time studying. We will just need to adapt and so we start off speaking 1:1.

Ian is using his student’s grammar books as prompts for questions and answers - this session is more about pronunciation and understanding than the passing of information. I use pictures on my iPhone to show some UK architecture to prompt conversation. One photo of an Elizabethan butter market in black and white wood prompts an excited response from my young man...we have the same in Vientiane, he tells me. He produces a photo on his phone of the Patuxai monument - the concrete edifice in the capital city. At first it seems odd that he would think they were the same but then I realise that he has picked up on the stilt-like design of the architecture - both have an open air ground floor area to walk underneath with the enclosed building built above.

We are now joined by another young man whose English is also basic but he is determined to hold a conversation. He is also in his 20s, studying finance but with a desire to become a soldier where he will receive further education.

The first students leave after an hour, to be replaced by two 20 year old girls studying at the local college. They both come from the same province 60 miles south of Luang Prabang. Their English is also good, and they are eager to practice their conversation skills as well as broaden their general knowledge.

Again, the 90 minutes has passed quickly, with both of us hoarse from the need to speak loudly in the crowded room.

We head back to the night market - I have my eye on some souvenirs. And then to dinner - pad Thai with avocado for me and cashew nuts with chicken for Ian.

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