7th May 2013 Vientiane, Laos
Laos through my eyes – Colin Cotterill
The following is a guest post by Colin Cotterill.
In 1976, like Captain James Cook on his ill-fated trip to Hawaii, I set off from Blighty in search of adventure and never came back. Oh, perhaps the occasional Christmas or odd publishing junket, but I knew I’d never be taking advantage of the over-sixties London Transport bus pass.
Instead, I discovered Asia and was not clubbed to death by the natives. It was a love affair that blossomed in the migrant centers of Australia where Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were living uneasily beside Bulgarians and South Americans. As an English teacher I was often the first Westerner to hear their stories, ground out painfully in their new language.
Theirs were tragedies and tales of woe often told with humour and grace. And it was in this setting that I met the Lao for the first time.
When the families eventually settled in overcrowded condos and cramped town houses, they invited their old teacher to come for lunch. I’d often find myself at the kitchen table with a crowd of old French-educated ex-members of Lao parliament. There had been many.
They’d tell me about the corrupt old days when Vientiane was still a Gomorra of bars and opium dens, of US aid money that paid the salaries of every member of the Royalist armed forces and bought the luxurious summer residences of their generals. Of drinks on steam boats down the Mekhong and old French habits that still distinguished the upper classes. These, I learned, were ‘the good old days’. These were the times they believed the communists would ruin forever.
Naturally I wanted to see just how true this all was. I had my opportunity in 1990. UNESCO had a position at Dong Dok, Pedagogical Institute. I was to help revamp the old East German English language curriculum whose methodology was written in German.
These were the days when Russian experts in sandals and sweat stains still appeared in dark corners, when chickens wandered shamelessly into the classrooms, when you’d roll up your trouser legs to wade across campus through mud, where the new language lab tapes grew soggy in the hot season leaving thirty students repeating – like a small herd of cattle – bass words playing at half speed.
The teachers I worked with then are still my friends today but these days they get paid.
When the UN project ran out of money, the ministry asked if I’d be silly enough to work for nothing setting up a similar pilot project in the deep south. NGO’s were looking for footholds in the provinces and I had a ready-made project. I had the option to be either a VSO, an AVA or a Japanese volunteer.
The Aussies offered the best package which included beer. I went to Pakse to set up an English department. In the capital, English language graduates were being offered positions in the fledgling tourist industry. Only the poorest speakers became teachers. In the south there was no such temptation. We had two hundred applicants. Thirty were offered placements on the course. All but four went on to teach.
I’d been about to build a little house on the Nam Ngum River and start a three year curriculum project but Lao fate steered me in another direction. I sold my jeep and gave away my dog and headed to Thailand where I went through two career changes.
To my surprise I became a social worker and spent a good deal of my time working with abused kids. And that move inevitably led to a career as a writer. I have written nine books set in Laos in the seventies that continue to get good reviews around the world. That success spawned one or two small scholarship projects back here in Laos.
And I constantly look back to the bright side of my experiences in Pakse. If I’d stayed in Laos I wouldn’t have changed careers. I wouldn’t have vented my spleen writing about (and killing off) the awful characters I came across working in child protection.
I wouldn’t have discovered I had a small gift for fiction. I wouldn’t have dug out my old Lao interview tapes, nor gone back to visit old friends, nor created an alter-ego, Dr. Siri who gets the better of bureaucrats on my behalf. I wouldn’t be a novelist or travel around the world answering questions on the little country that – in spite of everything – I love.