As I prepare to leave Laos after 6.5 years of living and working here, I cannot help but reflect on my time here, my first days and weeks here. One of the very clear memories I have – as though it happened just yesterday, was my first meeting with you. This is atypical for me because I very rarely remember the first time I meet someone; more shy than people perhaps realize while sincerely in the moment, I usually am just trying to get through the moment, so I in the end draw a blank. But you and a few others I can basically count on one hand, were different. Interestingly – I also remember the first time I saw Shui Meng – you were together, sitting a couple of rows in front of me during one of those Monument Books presentation evenings. She stood up and voiced her opinion during the habitual Q&A session that follows all presentations. I just remember saying to my friend Wow – now that is a strong woman; I would definitely not want to mess with her; good for Sombath for having the confidence to be with a woman like that! Says even more about him as a man.
Anyway, back to our meeting. I was directed your way – you being identified as a key person to meet and PADETC having been a close partner of then SAF, the local NPA I was working with, before NPAs existed; at least the term and legal framework for their operations. I was facilitating an institutional evaluation of SAF, which in the end as you know paid off. You/PADETC as a partner but also a key local civil society stakeholder were among a long list of people and organizations to meet. Looking back it was my good fortune in the end, because the process allowed me to meet many local actors in a short period of time; and be introduced to Lao civil society by Lao civil society, not some Polish/Canadian expat who has been in country for an extended period of time 😉 No matter how well intended and pro-local civil society the person may be – I do feel honored that for my first two and a half years in Laos, my orientation was facilitated by people like you and through local organizations (surprise – surprise: yes civil society does exist in Laos, not just since 2007 but long before – and who said emerging?)
Anyway, along with directives to meet you, came a profiling – a pre-set reputation which admittedly had me a little nervous; wondering who is this guy I am going to meet; forewarned already that your time was very limited, and most certainly you too were probably wondering who I might be or think I am – probably yet another foreigner like so many you have already met, who’s coming in expecting to know everything and have all the answers…and on top of it – relatively still young! I certainly would think that if I were you!
The day finally came, I made my way using the blue church on the corner as my landmark to turn down the dirt road which would take me to PADETC’s enchanted little courtyard, with Buddha as its gatekeeper. I waited barely two minutes before you stepped out of your office and greeted/invited me in; mentioning time was short. We sat down across from each other, when you ordered us some green tea, as we would many more times to come; and today this tradition is maintained during my meetings with Khamphoui. I remember being surprised at the same time not surprised at all by your rather ‘petite’ stature, and unmistakable serenity. In some ways you reminded me of the Native elders I lived, studied and worked with in my adolescent and college years – it was a familiar and comforting feeling. You looked at me warmly and invited me to speak; saying that you wanted to listen first. This was unsettling, because that is usually my preferred position and approach; and at the very least more of an exchange Q&A type of interaction was what I was prepared for; but here you put me on the spot; caught me off guard and asked someone who is not really a fan of listening to her own voice for any particular length of time – do just that – and that we did – we both did. Within a few minutes your eyes shut and that further unsettled me. I thought to myself – either I am boring this guy and failing this test miserably – because I did see it as a test; earning my stripes so to speak; or this guy is one of the most Zen people I have ever encountered and he is actually meditating, or perhaps a combination of both? I continued to talk despite and because for what felt like an excruciating eternity; and finally pulled the plug on myself – figuring I better quit while I am ahead/not or before you started snoring or begged to me stop – so stop I did, made it clear I reached the end of my monologue in case you were still listening. And you were! You slowly opened your eyes and gazed at me – holding me in suspense for a few seconds but what felt like hours; and then finally said, with a devilish smile across your lips: you’re pretty smart; I’m hungry – let’s go have lunch; I’ll take you to my favorite Chinese dumpling restaurant…
A thirty minute meeting turned into a 3 hour lunch. Since then, whenever I go to that Chinese restaurant, I am always reminded of our first meeting and you; but more importantly that meeting would be the launching pad for many collaborations, discussions and lunch meetings between us at various spots you laid claim to as your favorites; so now as I prepare to leave Laos, memories and learnings involving you are among the fondest I carry close in mind and heart; and will continue to draw on – each one brings a smile to my face, including the ones of you shutting your eyes during various meetings 🙂 So thank you Sombath. Until next time.
PS. As far as I can tell, from the few times I have been in your company while you stole cat-naps here and there, I don’t think you snore – I can’t imagine you snoring actually – so I’ll just assume you don’t – goes better with that serene image I have of you 🙂 You are one cool cat!