Where is Laos? This is the question that I heard most at the end of 2016. That was the period preceding my first journey to South East Asia, precisely to this mysterious country.
The departure time arrived, and I was getting progressively more excited and nervous.
On the 29th of November 2016 I landed in Luang Prabang, and the first meeting was at the airport with a GVI staff member-a nice British guy who kindly asked me how my trip was and if he could help me with my bags. I couldn’t understand a word of what he said. I was quite confident with my English skills before the departure, I felt that English was going to be my last problem in Laos, but apparently the story was different. Anyway, that was my very first encounter in Luang Prabang. After that, on the van going to my temporary accommodation for the night before joining the GVI program, I was impressed by how much vegetation there was in that country. My mind started to over-think about countless dangerous animals, plants or “monsters” that might have been able to kill me. It is hilarious now thinking back to that moment.
The story is not done yet. I arrived at the guesthouse and had a huge room with two beds without a mosquito net, I couldn’t use the WI-FI to talk to some familiar people. I was already very worried and anxious when i heard some hens clucking , and i suddenly realized that the window didn’t have any glasses. I started panicking. I was terrified by chickens, and the biggest worry was that one of them would come in my room at night while I was sleeping. At that point I had only one thing in my mind: “WHAT HAVE I DONE? WHY AM I IN THIS PLACE? I WANT TO RUN BACK HOME NOW”.
The most hilarious thing is that I am writing this article in 2019 from the same Luang Prabang , my home, where I have been living for two years.
One month volunteering
My first trip to Asia, my first teaching experience, a full immersion in a completely new culture, and a huge turning point in my life. This was also the first time I volunteered with GVI in Luang Prabang.
Despite the unfortunate first impression of Luang Prabang,the period I spent teaching with GVI was one of the best experiences of my life. I found a cozy and welcoming environment, where both GVI staff and local people were happy to share their experiences, and have a cultural exchange.
I signed up for the novices program, so since the very first week I started teaching two novices classes, plus one of young adults. Tuesday was the first teaching day, and my first class was at the biggest temple in Luang Prabang, which hosts more than 500 novices and monks. It is located 30 minutes from the town and it has its own Monk high school, where GVI provides support for the English classes.
Getting to know the students
Classes started at 8:30 am so we left the guesthouse at around 8:00. Half an hour without breath! My body was shaking; I was terrified of the idea of standing in front of a class of 60 novices, where I had to remember all the strict rules on how to behave with them (which are plenty) in addition to the teaching rules, and lesson plan.
As soon as we arrived at the temple I felt both excited and intimidated at the same time. At the time I wasn’t accustomed at all to see novices and monks around me, and even less ,accustomed to their rules. Anyway after the first week I started being more confident , and I was able to create a connection with the students. By the end of the month I would have given anything to keep teaching in that incredible school.
My other lesson was at Luang Prabang Library where I had a fairly small class consisting of less than 10 novices. There, I felt pretty confident, and I enjoyed it a lot since the beginning. The students were a bit older, and their level of English allowed them to be more active during our lessons. I also had a fantastic teaching partner, who had been volunteering with GVI for few months, and had already gained lots of experience in teaching. Our students were incredibly involved in the lessons; we had lots of fun teaching and studying.
The last class was in the evening at an English college in town. This last lesson was easier on one side but harder on the other. Only one student was a novice, so I didn’t have to worry about the rules with the rest of the class, but on the other hand working with a class of 30 teenagers was a real challenge. Despite their young age, most of the students had an evening job after a full day spent studying at high school. It was impressive the energy they put into the English lesson despite their busy and tiring day. Today, in February 2019, I remember all the students there, and they still remember me as well. It is wonderful when, even now, they stop me in the street to have a short chat.
By the last week of my experience with GVI I started to get closer to the Buddhist culture: I couldn’t stop asking people to teach me about it, and my interest
grew stronger and stronger.Unfortunately the time to leave had arrived, so reluctantly I caught a flight to go back to my life.
However, the incredible impact of the GVI project in Luang Prabang, along with the love for the Lao culture, and the curiosity for temple life, brought me back in Laos within three months’ time, for another life changing adventure.