Blog // Tales from the trail

19 Sep
2015

“You're Fired!”, Laos

By Keith

Were we really just fired? Or were we let go? Can one even be fired from being a volunteer? Either way our host for the previous 9 days had made it abundantly clear we had become surplus to his requirements, and from our side we were very happy to leave him to it. An event that shall henceforth be known as 'latte-gate,' marking the beginning of the end of our time in the butterfly park.

The whole thing started about a month before when we had signed up to a volunteering site, tired of whizzing around places, an attempt on our part to spend more time in fewer places. Hopefully enabling us to learn a bit more about them and perhaps some other useful skills in the process. After signing up, we sent off a few speculative emails to 'hosts' and the Kuang Si Butterfly Park, just outside of Luang Prabang, was the first to respond. The Dutch couple also keen to point out that 'it wasn't a holiday,' but having previously spent some time helping out a Dutch couple building a campsite in Morocco, we felt we were familiar with this directness. We had duly made our way across to Laos and enjoyed a very relaxing few days in Luang Prabang with the Looies (aka Corallie's parents) and now the time to 'work' had come.

Glassy tigers in action

Glassy tigers in action

'Work' we had presumed was the quoted 5 hours a day, 5 days a week; not so as we gradually found out (our host electing not to voice this despite his proudly straight-talking style) was 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Not that we minded overly as there wasn't a great deal to do in the small village; plus the fact our accommodation was very much in the rustico-style - whilst personally I felt the wooden cabin had a certain charm, I did concede it wasn't really a good place to 'hang out', especially when the dampness and insects crept in after dark.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself; after a bumpy, breakfast-repeating, morning tuc-tuc ride we arrived at the park, the sun was out and all looked rosy. The butterfly park and its undeniable beauty was revealed to us, with numerous flowering plants tastefully landscaped alongside the roaring rapids and mini-falls, the water coming from their bigger brother, the Kuang Si falls, just upstream.

The upper gardens in the park - not a bad place to work for a few weeks!

The upper gardens in the park - not a bad place to work for a few weeks!

Entering the main, 900m² enclosure

Entering the main, 900m² enclosure

This location is no coincidence, as the butterdly park's current business model is to advertise at the falls just up the road to attract customers, until such point that tourists were aware of the place as an attraction in its own right.

The main enclosure - complete with natural fish spa

The main enclosure - complete with natural fish spa

This was pointedly explained to us, along with our role in the trade (as volunteers); we were there to get the punters in from the falls, greet them at reception, give them tours of the park and above all to make sure sufficient paying numbers came during each day. This last point was most salient, as the European food he was going to be feeding us (not that we'd asked for it, but coincidentally what he liked to eat and serve in the cafe) was expensive and so, we needed to earn our keep!

We were told the best formula for flyer-ing and given some instruction as to how to guide visitors around the park and additional information about butterflies we were to read up on from the PDF book on the computer; anything else we were to phone him on the cheap Nokia handsets he was now showing us (numbering one fewer than we were).

I was surprised following my first stint of flyer duty up at the waterfall at how much I enjoyed speaking with the tourists; obviously a few too caught up in their own itineraries to spare any extra holiday time to talk, however others were genuinely interested and it was a pleasure to share details of the park - I will definitely look at fellow 'flyer-ers' differently in the future!

Keith, during operation flyer

Keith, during operation flyer

Initially the plan had been for me to help with this and also to get involved in some DIY/fence building, whilst Corallie and Katrina (another volunteer arriving with us) guided visitors. However a rather large tree stump I had been attempting to help carry saw the end to my DIY potential, and almost my finger. This didn't stop me popping over and seeing what the local guys (assisted by the final volunteer, Nick) were up to. Even with the language barrier, I found them hilarious and super friendly; my trips were frequently rewarded with some spicy local snack or fresh fruit they had collected from nearby - along with lessons on how to prepare it with a giant machete (the Laos multi-tool). After the log incident I remember woozily holding a rag to my finger to stem the bleeding and a sheepish face appearing at the door to check I was OK (and apologise for the drop), with three even more shy faces following just behind when it was clear I wasn't in any way mad at them.

And so the three of us split our time between guiding, flyering and reception duties and on balance I think we made a pretty respectable team, visitor numbers were good, they were wowed and frequently left with big smiles on their faces. We were even starting to get acquainted with the local tourist guides and drivers to pass on the message of something that their customers might quite like.

Lemon emigrant having a drink

Lemon emigrant having a drink

The striped blue crow

The striped blue crow

The Paris Peacock shaking its tail

The Paris Peacock shaking its tail

Whilst our host was still unwavering in his attempts to fettle us into his vision of perfect workers, as the first week concluded even he seemed content with our efforts; although not before hitting us with one last comment on our way out to town to spend our day off about our fractionally early departure (that he had earlier suggested) and finally to make sure we were on-time when the park opened again - BAMM!

The roof of the main enclosure

The roof of the main enclosure

With that seed he planted, a definite change in mood grew in our shared transport back to Luang Prabang; surely a simple 'thank you for this week' would have sufficed or maybe 'enjoy town, see you on Wednesday'? Instead, it felt more like he had thrown a proverbial knife in our backs as we were leaving, and with this in focus, recollecting all the weeks' 'small suggestions' we started to see things from a different perspective and felt somewhat unappreciated (and unmotivated to return) despite our hard efforts during the week.

Nevertheless, we had committed to 2 weeks and refreshed from our day off (although a trip to the hospital confirmed that my finger was badly infected and would require some care and attention and another check-up in a few days) we decided to positively attack our second week, figuring at least we knew what was in store, even if at the same time we were dreading rushed, defrosted baguette lunches and bucket showers in our damp hut resembling accommodation down the road.

A leaf butterfly stopping in for a snack at one of the feeding stations

A leaf butterfly stopping in for a snack at one of the feeding stations

Things kicked-off OK the second week, although not before a quick side swipe at my decision to visit the hospital in town and take the presecribed antibiotics for my infected, squashed finger. This was followed with a lecture on how badly locals were treated at hospital (not a view I overly shared from my visit) - perhaps his preferred approach was to do it Laos-style and take a 50/50 punt on whether it healed or dropped off. Although by now I just read this as his way of dealing with the fact I'd just told him I'd need to go back to hospital in a couple of days and so I wouldn't be able to do the DIY he had in mind for me.

Common grass yellow hiding under a leaf

Common grass yellow hiding under a leaf

Midway through the otherwise quiet morning, the Lao cook suddenly took off on her motorbike, looking perplexed. We later found out that she had been fired (apparently after an altercation with our host over stock, she threw a funny face) and whilst not deeming this a significant enough event to tell us about, the expectation was that we were to assist in picking up the slack. An idea that didn't particularly thrill any of us, not least the girls, who weren't keen on the kitchen owning not only to its general cramped and grubby status, but also the cold-water pressure tap (squeeze too hard and all the water would rebound off whatever you were aiming at and out of the sink at high velocity).

Not knowing the system in the cafe kitchen for paying visitors, nor us possessing much beyond a vague familiarity with the menu (or even any idea what had happened to the very able cook at this point in time), the scene was thus set for latte-gate, as Corallie was summoned down to the kitchen to help with a food order.

A cold front of disbelief met Corallie when she informed our host, 'No, I don't know how to make a latte with your machine' (nor condensed milk, may I add!). A swift and stern demo was given, before making the coffees himself and angrily leaving for town on his motorbike to collect the cook's missing stock, muttering something along the lines of 'maybe you should practice whilst I'm out' as he left; now seething about the event as much as the journey he didn't want to make.

Clearly still smarting on his return, an inquiry was called with the girls, where it transpired it was Katrina he had previously shown how to make lattes, not Corallie. Conceding the confusion surrounding the storm-in-a-coffee-cup may have come from himself, although quickly adding us not understanding just how busy he was, prevented him from taking on the full blame and left the situtation only partially closed. Thus dinner that night was an awkward affair, with uncomfortable silences punctuated by occasional, over-polite 'could you pass the vegetables please' and 'these potatoes are nice'. In many ways reminisce of defunct family dinners, eyes down to avoid unnecessary contact.

The next day things had thawed a little, but it was still clear he was holding onto latte-gate and overnight angry thoughts had somehow metamorphosed into our general incompetence. By this time however, Katrina had decided enough was enough, as her sister was currently visiting Laos and she wanted some quality family time with her before she left. And so wandering down late-morning from reception, I was confronted by our host, who informed me very matter-of-factly of not only her decision to leave, but of his decision that, as a negative attitude had descended amongst the volunteers (no shit!) it would probably be best if we all left - furthermore he needed neither volunteers nor the hassle. In my best diplomatic demeanour, I retorted I respected his decision but also saw little reason to continue either if we weren't needed, but we would try to finish the day at least amicably.

Dinner was a touch less frosty that evening, us sipping on beers to commemorate making it as far as we did (not to mention our first ever sacking!), whilst our host, perhaps proving in his own way that he could indeed do things on his own, decided to cook by himself.

Awaking to our new found freedom the following day, we decided to visit the Kuang Si falls; as despite flyer-ing by the entrance every day we hadn't actually been able to see much of the falls, with daylight hours mostly being blocked-off at the park. We set out, past the empty flyering stand and followed the trail, past the rescue bear centre, past the smaller pools, to the beautiful falls and then right up the falls and back to the source a few kilometres further up. It was a beautiful walk.

A bear chilling at the rescue centre at Kuang Si falls

A bear chilling at the rescue centre at Kuang Si falls

Some busy work dismantling a rotten pole

Some busy work dismantling a rotten pole

The nature walk up to the main falls

The nature walk up to the main falls

The bridge across Kuang Si falls

The bridge across Kuang Si falls

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si waterfall

Hiking up the falls - literally

Hiking up the falls - literally

The stunning surrounding countryside

The stunning surrounding countryside

Looking down from the top of the falls

Looking down from the top of the falls

Ants marching along too

Ants marching along too

Corallie relaxing at the source

Corallie relaxing at the source

On our way back down we literally bumped into the butterfly catcher from the park, something I had wanted to do whilst volunteering but had been informed it was more of a 'something for my day-off' activity. Off we followed watching him at work, deftly catching and gently releasing the butterflies into the netted enclosure. Returning to the village, we bumped into one of the tuk-tuk drivers we had befriended - who was more than happy to squeeze us and our luggage in for the 30km return lift back into town - things were starting to turn around already and we were feeling more relaxed again (maybe this is what the Buddhists call Karma?).

Hiking with the butterfly catcher

Hiking with the butterfly catcher

Gigantic trees on our walk

Gigantic trees on our walk

Writing this from a distance now, it still confuses me; we've laughed and joked about the, at times, ridiculousness of the whole experience and not that I'm looking for any reinforcement in any actions, but sometimes also reflecting on if/how there was a way of dealing with things differently? Perhaps things were just doomed from the start and pushing-back would only have accelerated this process. Either way whether it's volunteering or paid work, the bit I don't think he got was that if you are the boss, you set and create the atmosphere and the environment not the team you have selected. It's a shame though, that things weren't left on a more positive note because the park is beautiful and they really have done a great job with it; it will be a success for sure. We'd recommend visiting it definitely, but volunteering....maybe not.

Here's a few interesting Flutterby facts that rubbed off during our stay:

  • Butterfly sings are made up of hundreds of cells that act like solar panels, capturing energy from sunlight to help them fly!
  • Buterflies emerge from their crysalises as adults, fully grown and ready to eat and mate!
  • They have long, straw-like trunks to feed, called a probiscus - just like an elephant!
  • Butterflies live anywhere between 1 day to 6 months!
  • Whilst not fussy about their pollen source, buterflies will only lay their eggs on one type of plant (changes with the species)!
  • They have mini 'tongues' on their feet to taste what plant they are on!
  • Some buterflies migrate 1000s of miles across multiple generations!
  • When a caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, it turns into a pool of genetic material, that is then rebuilt into the butterfly!

Comments on this posting:

  • Sprouts: Whatever do you mean Gaz?! Lovely to hear from you - hugs to you all! Thanks Pam, glad that you're getting flashbacks to your amazing travels!
  • Gaz: I always new you guys couldn't be trusted. Looks like you're having an amazing time. Take care. Gaz, Em and Evie xxx
  • Pam Barber: Loving your blog. You are covering much of the route we went on a few years ago so your photos are bringing back lots a great memories. Not sure where you plan to go next but if you fancy a 'bit off the beaten track' jungle/orangutan sin the wild experience we can recommend BUKIT LAWANG in Sumatra, bit of a mission to get there but worth the effort. Love your photographs. Look forward to sharing more of your blog xx
  • MOG: Absolutely love this photo of Kuang Si waterfall, it's surreal! Makes me feel quite sad, sat here in the cold and rain.

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