Luang Prabang secret...
June 27th '06 we arrived in Luang Prabang and to our hotel late afternoon. An old french villa that had been renovated and turned into a boutique hotel. With 7 rooms only, all in wood floors and beautiful furniture there was a great feeling to this hotel. The restaurant was amazing and had the best pastries I have eaten any where. Nice people, good service, great location for down town and perfect for offering morning rice to the barefooted monks at dawn. A truley amazing experience.
Who is Big Brother Mouse?
Big Brother Mouse, a strange name I know. Big Brother Mouse is a charity which specialises in trying to attain literacy in the poorer areas round Luang Prabang. I had read in the Vientiane Times that 30% of females aged 6 - 25 have never been to school. They commission books for which they need sponsorship and distribute them in the Province but their shop / office / classroom serves as a drop-in centre between 0900-1700 every day except Sunday as a learning facility for Lao people wanting to learn English. This is what happened the first day I went there.
I speak about ten words of Lao, have no teaching qualification, well no qualifications whatsoever. Many Lao can now speak English as learned at school from Lao teachers but they want to work on pronunciation etc. Heaven forbid there should now be several young men in Lao speaking English with thick Belfast accents! It really could not be simpler. There are a couple of tables, a few maps on the wall and a few childrens English posters of the A is for apple, O is for owl type, and you just sit down, introduce yourself and talk. I am certainly good enough at that.
I have always respected teachers and now I begin to realise why. I had no classroom plan or whatever they are called, so what to talk about? It really was quite nerve-wracking at first, especially given the natural shyness of the Lao. What do you talk about? There is no guidance at all from the staff there so you just wing it. My "group", although it is all very informal, consisted of three (H)mong lads, two about 20 and one only 12 years old. They were all from far flung villages in Luang Prabang Province and the two elder lads were working in town whilst the youngster was studying at school a few miles out of town. We had two books, an English / Lao dictionary and a book of kids games that Big Brother Mouse produce. So off we went.
We started with the usual, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?" routine, so I came to Northern Ireland. That had to be shown on the very useful world map on the wall, so it gave me a plan. Northern Ireland - North. All the guys had notebooks which they assiduously wrote things in, so I got out the pen and did the points of the compass, using my guidebook to demonstrate. LP is Northwest of Vientiane etc. That led to compass and sailors / boats etc. and we discussed long tail boats and slow boats on the Mekong. I could not mime or demonstrate sailor so the dictionary came into play. Remember sailor, it becomes a little odd later on.
So, we had done the compass thing and then I noticed one of the older guys, the quiet one, was wearing an Inter Milan top. I asked if he supported them, trying to start a talk about football which the Lao love, but he told me he had bought it because it was warm! In about 30 degree heat and me sweating profusely, I found this odd. However, I then regaled them with the story of the founding of that club in 1908. The kids play book was then brought into play, so I got the young lad to read aloud from it (it is in English and Lao) and it started to get difficult. It has long been the butt of humour that Eastern Asians confuse our L and R sounds, thereby rendering farang as falang etc. They also have a serious difficulty with the W sound and render it as a V, so a fairly extended session on that, correct pronounciation of walk was the big one.
We were having a great laugh, and one of the games mentioned in a kids book was "write your name in the air with your bottom". I can just imagine the hilarity this must cause in a village. So, bottom led to the concepts of bottom top and sides, which went well. Then I was writing something in one of the guy's books and I noticed on the opposite pages a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a map of San Fransisco etc. and a Chinese female name. Apparently, one of the large Chinese community in that city had come here to do what I was doing. I explained that San Fransisco was Spanish for Saint Francis. "What is a saint?" was the inevitable question. How do you explain the concept of sainthood to someone with only the scantest knowedge of Christianity? Go on, try it yourself. I think I managed. This is where it gets odd. In the two hours I was there we probably looked up about five words in the dictionary, so we looked up saint, and what was it adjacent to? Sailor, as above. What are the chances?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I thought to explain how odd a language English was. I did this to make them feel better as they were obviously trying so very hard and it was difficult for them. In fact, their thirst for knowledge was a truly humbling experience, not lost on one who basically squandered the opportunity of a very good education. You English speakers have a go at this. I wrote down BOW and explained it meant a thing you tie on your shoe, bending at the waist, something with an arrow a thing to play a violin with and the front of a boat. Confusing enough until I told them BOUGH as in part of a tree was also pronounced the same as bending at the waist. English is my mother tongue and it confuses the life out of me.
Then he hit me with another one. "What is Engand and what is Britain?" Here we go again. I am sure there are British passport holders who would struggle to differentiate between Britain, Great Britain and the UK. Cue another trip to the map and a discourse on the political makeup of the UK, the passport being used to demonstrate. Which led to more discussion of the perversity of the English language. I was talking about the visa stamp in my passport for PDR Lao. You are undoubteldy ahead of me already, dear reader. Stamp. What is in your passport, what you put on a letter and what you do with your foot. Three entirely different concepts served by the same word.
The older, quiet guy asked me another couple of questions and I realised how little I actually know about my own language. He asked what did "somebody" mean and he asked me to explain when to use the word a and the word the. Go on, try it. I know when to use them but was confounded by how to explain it. I tried my best though.
All too soon the two hour session was over and I have to say I left feeling pretty drained. It is quite hard work, although it really is so rewarding. The looks on their faces are a joy and there is no expectation of you, you don't need to be a formal teacher, although I would suggest you jot down a few topics should the conversation falter. If any of you ever venture this way, I strongly urge you to do this, it costs you nothing except a bit of a taxation on your brain, and the results are so, so wonderful. I didn't want to stick a camera in these young mens faces so you will have to take my word for it. The photo is of the outside of the premises.
Head Northeast on Sakkaline Road (towards the peninsula) and go past the school on the left. When you come to the 3 Nagas restaurant, turn righ and it is 50 yards on the left.