I have been volunteering in Laos, more specifically in Luang Prabang, for over two weeks and in this short period of time, everything has changed.
My volunteering is to help a local jewelry store with unique pieces made by locals in place. It is an attractive store with really beautiful items that target tourists. It’s called the Garden of Eden.
My help is physically at the store where I help customers and take the opportunity to talk a little with them about their travels and even about the Coronavirus. I remember the first days I was here when we were only talking about China. We were also talking about China because it was my next destination, in fact, I didn’t even plan to come to Laos, but I came waiting for the situation in China to improve, something that is even happening there, but that in the rest of the world is not.
I even spoke in Portuguese at the store. The first Portuguese people I saw talked about their trip and also the subject of the moment: Covid-19. At the time we made jokes and laughed when they say that the Media in Portugal are desperate for a case to have news. A sad thing to hear, even more ridiculous now. Meanwhile, just over two weeks passed and everything changed.
Portugal no longer has zero cases, but more than two thousand. China is no longer the focus of chaos and has become Europe. My certainty of being well around here is not so clear anymore.
These last days, with each client I speak the conclusion is always the same. They are leaving, they are going back to their country. They enter the store to buy the last gifts before returning. With each answer, I feel more confused and lost in thought. It looks like they’re all leaving, and I’m staying. This is where all doubts arise. There are so many at the moment and nothing is certain. How does a person know whether he is making the right decision or not? It is not known!
It is not known if the situation is going to get worse, it is not known if there will be flights back, uncertainty is the only certainty.
I’ll stay for another month, but I’m afraid. I am afraid that I will not be able to have flights at normal prices to return, I am afraid that countries will close borders and not even be able to leave here, I am afraid of catching the virus, I am afraid of going back and going to a country in chaos.
I felt safe in Laos because it allegedly has no case. How is there no case if it borders China? Laos and Myanmar seem untouched by the virus, strange to say the least. What they have in common is that they are from the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. So insecurity starts to increase when you think why they won’t have a virus. The conclusion I reach is that they have neither because nor are they looking for it. The check is not being done here in Laos, there are not many Covid-19 tests and hence there are no cases.
I made friends here and one of them has a fever and cough. Shee went to Luang Prabang Hospital for a virus test but was denied. They say you can only take the test in the capital: Vientiane.
This situation opened my eyes and left me with an explanation of the absence of virus cases in Laos. From that moment on, I was even more afraid, confused, not knowing what decision to make. This friend already left for Thailand the next day and is doing better. It wasn’t really the virus.
In Luang Prabang, fewer and fewer tourists are seen on the street. I think that in the coming days it will be even worse. What will be done with all these local businesses that live in the tourism industry? Difficult times are ahead but not just for them. I do not know if the place where I am volunteering will need more help since it seems to me that neither clients we will have soon. One more doubt hanging in the head. However, the family I am with are welcoming and have already said that I can stay as long as I want. At least having a place to stay makes me less anxious. Being in hostels with clusters of people doesn’t seem like a good idea, because I don’t know if many won’t close due to the lack of customers. For now, they are no longer closing doors to tourists as in Vietnam, where hostels no longer accept tourists from the West, and where a racist attitude towards the so-called “white people” is beginning to be seen. As I was there for almost a year, I am part of Facebook groups where deplorable reports of disgusting attitudes from the Vietnamese towards tourists can be read, such as calling “Corona” to Westerners who walk on the street, spraying them with disinfectant gel, or even showing panic reactions for seeing a Westerner walking down the street. There, tourist attractions are closed and schools have not opened since mid-January.
I hope that this unfriendly attitude does not begin to be seen in Laos either, otherwise I will have one more cause of discomfort and insecurity. Schools in Laos closed this week. The people I’m living with are afraid. They say that if they have the virus here it is to die, that this is not Thailand with good hospitals and doctors. This is their biggest fear. They fear that there will be no treatment in their own country, or that it will be miles away, in the capital. For that same reason, there are no jewelry classes and workshops that used to be done a few days ago in the store. In addition to selling the items they make, the Garden of Eden store also offers jewelry classes where the customer can make their own piece with the help and monitoring of locations. But, these classes imply close contact with foreigners whom we do not know where have been, so they ended up with the classes.
Despite 0 confirmed cases, which I don’t believe, Laos is taking preventive measures such as canceling mass-gathering events, banning the celebration of weddings, closing schools and canceling New Year’s festivities in Laos in April.
In two weeks everything changed! I don’t know what’s to come. I will stay and wait in the uncertainty of what to do next and in which direction to go. The most likely will be to return to Portugal if there are still flights at the time. I don’t want to stay here much longer and I don’t think the situation will be better in a month.
One thing is for sure: I have no idea what to do in the next few weeks and seeing everyone coming back makes me even more nervous.