Land of a Million Elephants

Quite a few people have asked me to share my experiences from when I worked in education and rural development overseas. Perhaps this "blog" will help. My background is mostly in Turkey, Laos, and Indonesia. After a near-fatal accident, I returned to the US and started a new career in information management. After the long term effects of the accident (including amputation of the right leg above the knee) I have settled on the waterfront in St Petersburg, Florida.

Location: St Petersburg, Florida, United States

Thursday, June 16, 2005

II. Getting There

It is said that President Kennedy modelled his earliest ideas for the US Peace Corps on the IVS volunteers he had seen teaching (and occasionally getting shot or blown up and killed) in Vietnam, when on junkets as a young Senator. By the mid-1960s, IVS had programs in Vietnam and Laos, among other places. At first I thought I would push for assignment to one of their teaching positions in Vietnam -- the "tough guy" obsession again. IVS, however, was gradually pulling back in Vietnam because so many of its volunteers were being killed in particularly gruesome ways. IVS was used to being treated as "neutral," somewhat as the World War I ambulance attendants had been treated, so this brutal treatment was puzzling. Years later we found out that American intelligence operatives had infiltrated the organization and compromised its neutrality. In Laos, the only jeeps ever to be rocketed were being driven at the time by intelligence operatives, usually with one or more unsuspecting "normal" volunteers aboard. Both kinds of volunteers were barbecued.

My options seemed to be either cannon fodder in Vietnam or rocket fodder in Laos. I chose Laos. If I was going to die, I at least wanted it to be doing something that helped somebody.

The local draft board in Charlotte NC had fixed ideas on who could possibly be a "real" pacifist: "Do you belong to the Quaker church? Then you aren't a pacifist. Classification 1-A. Next." I had already left graduate school, so I went on to Washington to prepare to leave for a position teaching in Laos, exact location yet to be determined. There was one catch: those with potential draft problems had to sign agreements that if drafted, they would pay all transportation costs and in-country costs associated with being in Laos. I couldn't do that.

For six months I cooled my heels in Washington, with nowhere to go and nowhere to return to. The more I heard about Laos, the more I wanted to go there. There seemed to be almost no reliable written resources on Laos, even in a place like the Foreign Service Institute's library, and this was the prime place for training America's diplomats. I did meet a steady stream of returning volunteers, though. Without exception, whenever the subject of "the Lao people" came up, their faces lit up and they got a special warm smile. All their "war stories" told of a gentle people coping with a particularly savage war they didn't understand. I wanted to go to Laos!

I first heard the maxim "When buffalo fight, it's the grass that suffers" in Laos.

A "friend of IVS" (it still amazes me how many of these "friends" IVS had then and still has now) knew of a young Foreign Service Officer in Lao language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. His posting to his first job as a diplomat in the Embassy in Laos depended on Lao language competemce. His Laotian teachers felt he would benefit by being in a classroom environment. He was getting one-on-one training -- the best money could buy -- and access to state-of-the-art language laboratories. I was invited to join his class on an informal basis.

The strategy seems to have worked. He graduated with flying colors. By the time IVS had cleared up my draft status (by routing my draft board appeals to the New York state draft board where yet another "friend of IVS" was a member) my Lao language skills had gotten pretty good. I had learned to read it and write it, as well as speak it. I remained in draft classification 1-A, but somehow I never got called, even when a national draft lottery was instituted some years later.

Privately I was told that the "friend of IVS" on the New York draft board relayed the unofficial opinion of the board to us: "If the fool wants to go to Laos without a gun and be shot at from behind practically every bush and boulder, LET HIM!"

"The "Vertical Runway"

The "Vientiane International Airport" had mostly unpaved runways.

Cement was donated to pave them and otherwise modernize the
airport. This is where the cement ended up. The "Samlo," or "Three-
wheeler" in the foreground is how peons like me mostly travelled.

Before that time, IVS in Laos had trained new volunteers only in spoken Lao. When they saw how quickly I was progressing after becoming literate, they began an experiment in teaching them to read and write as well as to speak. The usual result was that they got a slow start since Lao script is alien to the basic concepts of western languages. Vowels are made up of an assortment of squiggles that can be before, after, above, and below the consonant that "carries" them. Very often a particular vowel sound can involve squiggles in all four directions. None of the consonants were like those in Western alphabets. That slowed the students down in the beginning. But when they finished the introductory part of the course, the ability to read and write gave them the ability to keep on learning rapidly. Lao is a tonal language, and Lao script represents the tones well. "Phonetic rendering" into western alphabets does not. So the volunteers spoke more correctly as well as having a tool that any second grade Lao school kid could help them with.

Laos was a pretty dangerous place when I arrived. Two voluteers died when their jeep was rocketed on an isolated country road. At that time, it seemed that IVSers were serving in places unbelievably isolated and vulnerable. To the cynical, it appeared that these volunteers were being given radios and then posted mostly in order to serve as expendable "enemy" troop detectors. I almost was not sent out to a site; nobody was sure whether IVS's neutrality would be respected. A decision was made to place volunteers only in major towns and never in such isolated locations as before. As it turned out later, I was able to help reinforce the idea of neutrality in a quiet way, just by being myself, treating everybody I met with honor, doing a good job for my Lao school directors, and especially by trying to avoid being absorbed by the ever-present American community. (They used to have to withhold my Living Allowance funds even to make me go to Vientiane for Team Meetings.)

Ultimately it did turn out that Southeast Asia and Laos were to be a big part of my future.

Those years in Laos turned out to be the most rewarding of my life.