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Associate Editor Jim Weitz
The Pandemic Letters: Trapped Overseas

Trapped in Laos: A 2022 update
The Story of Gal, an Israeli National
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Laos was our home away home. We lived in the city of Luang Prabang for seventeen months, soon we had friends from both the native community and the expat community. We came to consider some of them as family. During those days we traveled, went to some food festivals, shared meals at our house with friends, and together cooked dishes from the Israeli, Turkish, Korean and Chinese cuisines.  We had a great time playing social games and drinking Korean soju.  We were all so grateful for the opportunity to be together, sharing those moments far away from the pandemic chaos around the world. A few months after we left Laos our friend from Japan messaged me by WhatsApp: “I really miss the moments in your house eating delicious dinners and playing funny games with crazy friends…” In fact, for us, the pandemic period will be remembered forever as one of the most beautiful periods in our lives.

Then in June 2021, our daughter began suffering from a mysterious skin condition. We took her to Lao Friends Hospital for children, where they did their best to help her, but a lack of specialist dermatologists, appropriate medication, and specific tests – the result of 15-months of closed borders – made us realize that we had no choice but to return to Israel as soon as possible.

In those days there were lockdowns in Laos. After the Phi Mai festival – the celebration of the Buddhist new year – COVID-19 came to Vientiane (the capital city) by way of undocumented Thai migrants crossing the Mekong River by boat. The pandemic quickly spread from there all over the country.

During the lockdown period, the Lao authorities required foreigners who wanted to leave the country to have their embassies submit departure requests to the Lao authorities. We were fortunate to get permission to board the only flight that was leaving for Seoul that month, but then they closed the roads from Luang Prabang to the airport in Vientiane. We went to the Ministry of Health to get the permission to make the drive. At first, they refused but when we returned with our daughter, the moment they saw her condition they showed us unforgettable compassion and immediately gave us the document we needed to leave the district and drive to the capital. Usually that process took three business days. We were so impressed by their kindness!

Our journey back home took three long days, we flew to Seoul then to Dubai and finally we arrived Israel.

Moving back home was tough on us. Our daughter was in the hospital for eight long days. At that time, we learned that for the rest of her life she would have to deal with an autoimmune disease. It was a very emotional time and generally it was hard to readjust. Our beloved country that we had left two years earlier was no longer the same. I guess, we were not the same as well. Sometimes we felt like we were speaking in a foreign language with friends and family, like we were living in different worlds. I don’t really know how to explain the feeling. Our journey changed us: the distance from our culture, from the language, from the customs, from the social nuances, especially in such a complex time when our families and friends were facing the consequences of the pandemic, a difficult economic situation without clarity about the future, and finally the terrorism in Israel that reared its head again just before we got back home.

Four months after we had come back home my daughter said to me: “Let’s go back on our journey. I was so happy then and I know it would be good for my health!”

Asia was still closed for tourists due to COVID 19. So a week later we flew to New York City. We planned to travel in the USA, but one month later, after we visited Washington D.C. and Richmond, we understood that we missed third world countries: the simple life, the warm people, the food, music and fascinating histories. We took a flight to Mexico City and since then we have been traveling in Mexico and Central America, in the midst of a great new journey. Our daughter’s health is getting better and many of our dreams have come true!

In Mexico we travelled to a beautiful, small colonial village. There we learned about Syncretism. In Isla Cozumel, our daughter earned her advanced open water certification, and one day we all dove together in one of the most unique sites in the world: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. We encountered a giant sea turtle while we drifted by in the current. We also did an exciting cenote dive.

In Belize we celebrated “Bar Mitzva” for our 13-year-old son. It is a Jewish religious ritual and family celebration commemorating the religious adulthood of a boy on his 13th birthday. Although we are not religious, I was so grateful to celebrate it in such an exotic place. We dove in Belize as well, it’s the same the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, but yet so different, we were surrounded by black tik sharks. I was so scared, but my husband fearlessly took some video of them.

In Guatemala we visited the unforgettable Tikal, an ancient Mayan city. We made the Acatenango Volcano hike: two tough days of a steep and challenging track. We all got altitude sickness. Only our son was spared. After we took some medicine and rested for a while we managed to clime to the top of Acatanengo mountain. At first, we saw nothing at all. We waited there for hours, watching the mighty shadow of Volcán de Fuego. We waited in anticipation until it happened: at 4:20 am we saw a spectacular sight of a huge volcanic explosion, red lava flowing down the mountain and glowing against the black sky.

In El Salvador, we visited what we think must be one of the top ten most beautiful places in the world: Volcán de Santa Ana. Climbing to the top of a mountain was quite easy. The summit of Santa Ana features four nested calderas and volcanic craters, with the innermost containing a small, turquoise crater lake. It reminded me of a beautiful jewel. And as for the people, we liked the Salvadorians; they were so nice and kind, and we made a new dear friend there.

In Honduras we liked the ancient Mayan ruins in the city in Copan. We also did some diving in Utila Island, but it was a sad experience. On our second dive in a colorful reef, suddenly we were surrounded by lots of trash: plastic bags, disposable Styrofoam Plates, plastic bottles, etc. We tried to grab some of the trash and take it with us, but only when we got out did we fully understand the awful situation. The garbage was everywhere we looked. The locals told us that it arrives on the current from the mainland. The rains from the last days caused floods that dumped garbage into rivers in Guatemala, which emptied into the sea. Turned out this was not the first time this has happened. Our hearts were broken when we thought of how the reef was being destroyed by irresponsible human behavior.

In Nicaragua, we did sandboarding in Volcán Cerro Negro. It was so exciting!  We also went on an interesting tour named “the dark history” by Said. This tour goes only on Sunday afternoons, at a place called “El fortin de acosasco”, a notorious Civil War fortress converted into a detention center, from which no political prisoner returned alive. Our guide, Said, was the best guide we ever had. During the tour he made us shed tears, laugh and feel excitement all at the same time.

These days we are traveling in Costa Rica where we have seen unique and endemic animals such as the three-fingered sloth, and a colorful and dazzling diverse population of frog species and birds. Toucans and Colibris were our favorite birds.

The next country will be Panama, then we shall see…

We still dream of travelling in Asia. China is still closed for tourists, but South Korea has opened her borders. We hope to visit there soon, but first we will visit South America. My son asked if we could travel to Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat located in Bolivia.

When we started our journey, our kids were young. We learned that travelling with children was a bit of a challenge. Now that they have grown into teenagers, we sometimes feel like we are experiencing an earthquake; on the one hand they like to travel, on the other hand they need some stability. We solve that issue by staying longer in places that they like.

Sometimes our family and friends ask us if we will ever come back home. I guess one day…  Or if I may quote my son, Kfir: “Only time will reveal the secretes of the future!”

You are welcome to read more about our adventure in our blog.


About the editor/compiler:
James Weitz is the author Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He is also a travel writer. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in the Latin American and Caribbean section at the World Bank. His writings have appeared in print at the Mekong Review and in the online journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He is an Associate Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: The national flag of Laos. Public domain.

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