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Life in Lao’s not-so-fast lane

Something unusual happens when you cross over the border and enter Laos: time slows down.

It is not always immediately noticeable: it’s similar to the effect of a music cassette (remember them?) that has had the tape inside stretched. The sound becomes distorted, the singer’s voice gradually becomes deeper, slower, distended, and before you know it you have gone from listening to Lady Ga Ga to something that resembles Enya on Ketamine.

You can sense the slowing down in virtually all activities: grab a car or bike and hit the roads and you will find that very few people drive above 30 mph; walk into a shop and you will more likely than not discover the owner actively ignoring you and watching TV, reluctant to get up even at the sight of money; go to a restaurant and your food may take up to an hour to arrive, if it ever does (forgetfulness in waiters seems endemic here).

It’s not that the people here are lazy (although, to be honest, I sometimes have my suspicions about certain members of the male population – but that remains true regardless of geography), it is simply that people here have a different relationship to time. It is as if Einstein’s theory of relativity is writ large here, except its not proximity to mass that slows things down, but to the Mekong and the ubiquitous BeerLao. 

As long as you are in no hurry, and especially if you have just arrived from the chaos that is Bangkok, this all adds to Laos’ charm. And if you stay here a while you find that you too slow down, and that any sense of urgency and productivity you had begins to fade in quite a pleasurable way.

A Different Work Ethic

Of course, as I discovered, when you’re working here, and actually trying to achieve something, Laos can come as a bit of a culture shock.

It isn’t that things here are just slower; there seems to be a lack of basic organization and structure to just about everything. When things happen, or rather if, it is due largely to luck more than judgment – people work to their own schedules, doing their own thing, and if it results in the successful completion of a project no one knows how or why.

In my previous life, I worked for a company that constantly pressured us to make things happen with impossible deadlines and insurmountable bureaucracy. My world was filled with corporate speak; my ideas were blue sky, I leveraged just about anything I could think of, and there were paradigm shifts, action plans and deliverables coming out of my ears.

The simplest of projects required at least a dozen forms to be completed; sent to 20 people; amends from every individual collated and incorporated; comments from an executive (who would invariable change the forms back to their original content); and then final sign off – all before you could do any actual work.

Following the completion of any project a series of meetings would then be held to evaluate the process, identify any unnecessary steps and to find someone to blame if it all went tits up. This would invariably lead to a new project to fix these problems, and the process would start all over again.

This is one of the many reasons I decided to give up my old life in the private sector, up sticks and move to Laos to volunteer for a local charity. There is only so much paperwork a person has to fill in before she snaps, and my camel’s back was one straw away from breaking.

But coming from that background into the Laos working world has been a steep learning curve. Sure, I love to procrastinate like the best of them; I hate bureaucracy and all it stands for; and I love having the freedom to have an idea and just go with it, without running it by the world and its dog first. But it would seem that there comes a point, generally after you find out that everyone has been working towards entirely different goals for the last month (albeit very slowly of course), when you realize that you can’t shake off years of indoctrination into the corporate world.

Jumping from one extreme to the other has brought me to a deeply disturbing realization: deep down I crave forms and guidelines, strategies and plans, and I would give my right arm for someone to leverage all the synergies I am so busy creating!

So I find myself, Buddha like, looking for a middle path. I am creating documents templates, implementing measurement systems, standardizing processes and designing forms for my colleagues to fill in. Most shockingly of all I have become friends with Excel.

And so it would seem that you can take the girl out of the organization, but you can’t take the organization out of the girl. I suppose the best I can hope for is that my new found passion for bureaucracy will actually make a difference to the charity I work for and to the people we try to help.

And failing that, at least there is plenty of BeerLao to drown my sorrows.

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