Technology, Lao Style

Week 11 – Old School, New Tech

4th – 10th November 2013

Hitting the Books

This week it was a case of getting down to some work – for Prunella the teaching continues at Ock Pop Tok, and, for Graham and the boys, hitting the school books.

Learning on the road can be fun.  Prunella is teaching some of her OPT students some English via the medium of song – they know the song (their choice), and now they know what they are singing when they are belting out Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You”…  The boys have been colouring, writing, measuring, taking photos, planning projects.

Graham is adjusting – slowly – to being a primary school teacher, having taken on the role of chief home tutor for the boys’ Distance Education schooling.  We have been supplied with written and electronic materials for correspondence based tuition of the Western Australian Primary School curriculum of the appropriate Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 3 school year.

In practice this requires printing and collating materials, accessing various internet-based learning resources, performing interim assessment and feedback, and submitting work packages for formal assessment by a class teacher in Perth.  We have managed to make a good start, and have tried to avoid the risk and cost – dollars and days – of mailing packages via snail mail, preferring instead to scan and email the work directly.

It’s a learning curve to maintain the discipline and effort required to complete and submit the work.  Through this exercise we have a fresh appreciation for the tireless work of our teachers – a profession that in Australia, as in much of the western world, has long been overlooked and undervalued.  A couple of months of home tutoring has reminded me how much easier it is to go off to the office and work on ‘grown-up’ problems than to stay at home or in the classroom and inspire, motivate, praise, cajole, assess and reflect with a group of people for whom so much depends on this routine, day in day out:  a group of people who, like us, can be happy, energetic, tired, hungry, distracted, frustrated, bored, and who happen to be four, six and eight years old and far from the comforts of home. be a mahout
Learning …to be a mahout

‘Un-schooling’ has a rightful place,  and travelling is intrinsically a good way of learning, but our joint philosophy is to balance the idealistic goals of experiential learning with the real-world formality of the classroom the boys will encounter when they return home.

State of the Art (or, musings on travelling with technology)

One of the themes of the school work has been “Talk, Type and Telephone”, a module focussed on communication through the years.  On our travels we’ve had many a talk (including in this very blog) about the availability of the technology we use to communicate.

The two adult Sabretoothed Chickens can remember our early days of backpacking:  no email, no internet, no WiFi, no smartphones.

We recall the days when poste restante was a good option for getting news to the traveller from home: I remember a lung-bursting sprint off the bus to the Kununurra Post Office from where the Darwin-Broome service pulled in for a ten-minute driver’s mandated smoko (I got back on the bus empty handed). Back then a set of postcards – the same news written out three times in the smallest readable handwriting, squeezed around impractically large yet exotic looking stamps – was the best way of getting news home.

Now it’s an email here, a blog post there (but beware blogger’s block!) and anyone and everyone can check in.  We switched to blogging because it means anyone and everyone can follow our travels, pics included.  No more shoving our travel news down the throat of the disinterested mailing list member.  You can follow us (please!) or not – the point is, it’s your call.

Back then budget and the limitations of technology meant investing in a phone card, and hunting down a public phone box which could make international calls, even if that was on a roaring Kuala Lumpur street corner.  You talked until your credit ran out, the call dropped into static mush, or both.  It was a Russian Telekom (or Polish, or Chinese) roulette.

Now it’s get your room, get some food, get a SIM card, usually in that order.  Got local friends? – send a text and they’ll be over with a couple of big Beerlaos – they’ve all got a better smartphones than we have; Your tuk -tuk driver isn’t sure of the destination?  He’ll be on his phone quicker than you can haul a map out (and in Lao, maps are anathema to anyone local anyway).

Smartphones mean you have the latest exchange rates, bank balance details, translators, voice recorders – all in your pocket.  Handy.  I found a fantastic travel expenses app:  add each cost, who paid, what currency, when and where.  At the end of the trip, it works out your daily budget and costs and, best of all, who owes what to whom, all in your preferred currency.  Call me square (OK then: “You so square you almost a cube!”)  but this is what these gadgets are good for, not the latest Star Wars Lego Angry Birds mashup game.

These days, subject to the permutations of technology, we can Facetime,  Tango, WeChat, WhatsApp, …what ever with the folks back home.  Sure, everyone wants to escape, but a year away from the grandchildren’s adventures is not fair on our close family.

Connecting with other travellers meant random approaches over your bowl of instant noodles in your hostel kitchen, not posting a request on the local Couchsurfing page.  The former option is and will always be the best, but we’ve kept an eye on the CS Luang Prabang page, and to date it has yielded an evening of Hallowe’en fun and a coffee by the Mekong with a travelling Brazilian diplomat (on holiday from his job at the Moscow embassy).

Wikitravel, blogs, online maps, websites.  Will there be a time when we no longer carry a Lonely Planet guide on a trip?  We haven’t got one for Laos, the first time in ages we haven’t carried one of these bibles with us, and we’ve done OK so far.  It’d be a paradigm shift in our travel experience – something to think about.

For the amateur travel photographer, technology wins, hands down.  No more the 14 rolls of 36 Fuji 400 ISO carefully shepherded along the road, away from heat, wet and light.  No more the buying more film along the road at tourist prices, who knows where it’s been and how long for.  No more jumping into the deep end and getting the shots processed – are they any good?  What do we do with the prints and negs?

Today it’s all about instant gratification.  Take ten shots (or fifty, or a hundred) – keep the good ones , move the rest to Trash (the secret of how National Geographic looks so good is not in the photos that made it, but the thousands that didn’t).  Edit, crop, make a slideshow.  Will that shot look better in black and white?  Tweak the white balance, adjust the ISO/Speed/Aperture triangle, switch to 1080i HD movie mode.  Did I say I was a geek? My one tip:  if you get someone to take a picture of you standing in front of <insert famous touristic spot>, don’t get the camera back and check to see if it was a good one while they wait.  Just don’t.

Load the photos into the laptop, back them up, post them wherever.  Gigabytes don’t weigh that much – even two copies.

Speaking of MacBooks – on our trusty early 2008 black  model, it we have scans of passports, photos, insurance docs, trip log, all the Office apps for Prunella’s volunteer work.  We did our tax returns in a hostel in Luang Namtha, and pay water bills in Chiang Mai.  Yup, we know how to have fun – but we do still have to be able to live life when this trip is done.  Oh yeah, and we have Plants vs Zombies.

Plants v Zombies
Fending off the phone phiddling zombies

Great stuff, but yes, it’s not all Beerlao and skittles.  A bag of chargers (phones, two cameras, Nintendo DS, MacBook, all with boutique variations on the interface size and shape), a trusty WiFi connection and not a small amount of homespun tech support.  A passport sized backup drive, and a fistful of USB sticks:  the price to pay.

All good fun until somebody loses a power connection in the first Luang Prabang downpour.  Three Nintendo game consoles are useless when somebody (no one knows who) gives our only charger’s cable a yank too far.  Thankfully there’s a tech head at the Dara Markets with a soldering iron and a tube of superglue.

Al fresco power infrastructure: all set up for the next sprinkling of rain
Al fresco power infrastructure: all set up for the next sprinkling of rain

What about the social aspects?  We’re Gen X:  we don’t do Facebook.  I have an account, but I don’t check it more than once a month.  Nobody needs to know what I’m eating for lunch; selfies are for other people.  I’d rather talk to a person for a few minutes than share a cafe with people phone phiddling.   Websites are well and good, but nothing will beat casting one’s eyes along the guest house ‘exchange bookshelf’, even if I know it’s odds on it consists of a copy of the Frommer’s Guide to the USSR and a battered German edition of The Da Vinci Code.

Does the pervasive presence of technology destroy the romance and adventure of life on the road?  My opinion: no.  We’ve never been so hard core as to seek out the place where no other white person had set foot.  Who can really say that and what does it mean anyway? The reality of the modern world is that someone else has been there, written about it, set up the cooking school, and, yes, blogged it.  There’s a Canadian running a bar here, a Brit charity there.  Chances are, the locals carry iPhones and can sell you an SD Card.

Nature defeats technology
Nature defeats technology

If you want to drop out, go for it. It’s not about having your phone handy or sending letters or not contacting home or whether or not you make a blog post.  It’s about meeting people, opening your eyes and seeing places as they are, now.  Typing this post outside our guest house, people are chatting in Lao.  Two novice monks just walked past, the Mekong silently flows.  A tuk-tuk driver snoozes in his hammock, slung between the passenger seats.  Last week our boys rode elephants through a dusty village; this evening there are misty jungle-clad mountains within sight.  I can smell the distant drains, and see a stop sign in a script I cannot read.  Last night we laughed with a girl from Vientiane and young people from Luang Prabang over a cask of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and a bowl of Thai clams.  Tomorrow we apply (online) for our Indian Visas.

Open your eyes and ye shall see.
Open your eyes and ye shall see.

We can’t do that home, no matter how much data flows back there.  It’s about the experiences we carry in our head. Every random byte and all of the 8000 photos we’ve taken so far (yes, there’s a lot of average ones) will never replace these things.  Tech can be good, it can be bad:  like the ceaseless flow of people along the street, it mainly just ‘is’.

…and now, I’m switching off.


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