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Fold and Unfold, Foldscopes Go to Laos

A heavy rain seemed to come down my first night in Vientiane. Sounded just like the needs-to-be-repaired dripping gutter outside my window in Tacoma. About midnight, big thunder hit. I was deep in dreamland. There are no windows in my hostel room, the sound of rainfall was created by the whirring fan, and the thunder was fireworks announcing 2018. Let others have hangovers, I’m up early, looking for coffee.

Ten feet from where I write is a storm drain and I watched a man park a scooter over it and pour its oil directly into the drain.

Hoo boy, there is no getting to Asia without a long plane ride. With security lines, customs, immigration, and a few hours on the floor at Kunming Airport, a full 24 hours was needed to arrive. There are less direct and longer flights, but no need for them.

After a couple of days, the tuk-tuk drivers on the block have begun to ignore me; so too the long-legged hooker who works our corner. Vendors here are easygoing, so I can wave off a hammock for sale or a manicure. Legit massage parlors are everywhere, so too the others. (“You want massage with boom boom?”) A manicure might be a good idea, even a massage, but no boom boom.

Foldscopes were invented by Stanford University’s Manu Prakash and his team and is an origami-based microscope.

To reframe a phrase from Norman McLean, I am enchanted by waters. It is dry season and the Mekong is low, about a quarter mile walk from the quay to its shore; a nice place to sit and watch it flow. Back in the bad old days, some who needed to get away would swim across. These days it’s easier to cross to Thailand on the Friendship Bridge.

The Mekong hosts more than 800 species of fish. Logging, dams, development, and all sorts of other environmental harms make the river less friendly to wildlife. Like everywhere, the fish caught have become smaller, and some use illegal dynamite and electrocution devices to catch them. Ten feet from where I write is a storm drain and I watched a man park a scooter over it and pour its oil directly into the drain. Watershed protection efforts are underway, but theirs is a big watershed, from the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Delta, nearly 5,000 kilometers through six countries.

The school is a private, bilingual academy that prepares students for Oxford exams. The group assembled for a Foldscopes lesson were high school physics and chemistry students. Perfect.

If you don’t know, I brought in my backpack one hundred Foldscope kits. Foldscopes were invented by Stanford University’s Manu Prakash and his team and is an origami-based microscope. The Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 contributed funds to buy the kits and I am looking for students and others with whom I can share the magic.

I bombed on my first couple of calls to pitch Foldscopes. You might think that a sciences university or the Institute for National Sciences Education would be welcoming, but no luck. A teacher and the Principal at the Vientiane Pattana School were excited and welcoming. I had connected with the school before leaving Tacoma and it’s walking distance from my hostel. The school is a private, bilingual academy that prepares students for Oxford exams. The group assembled for a Foldscopes lesson were high school physics and chemistry students. Perfect.

As simple as I may make them sound, Foldscopes need a bit of patience to assemble and some practice to get the specimens lined up just right. I learned that a classroom with twenty students is just too many. Better, I think, is half a dozen around a work table so each can see and watch how to fold their scopes. And a bit more than an hour is needed. Small group assembly needs about fifty minutes, but to look at specimens and to show how to take photos needs another half hour. So, I’m going to aim for two hours the next time. For now though, nothing yet in the pipeline. I remain forced to be patient.

The wonderful Valeria from Kyrgyzstan has left the building. French, Dutch, Russian, Indian, and lots of other nationalities rotate in and out.

I stayed an extra couple of days in Vientiane so that I could meet with students, but it’s time to move along. I have a ticket to Luang Prabang and an extra day to lollygag. Two days ago I finished my murder mystery set here in Vientiane and have been reading deprived since – no bookstores! But down a nearby alley I found one today with a well worn copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. No harm in rereading that. Besides, my Microbiology for Dummies should be a “Microbiology for Dumber Dummies.” If you don’t know, microbiology is hard!

I seem to thrive on not knowing. Sure, I have a ticket to Luang Prabang and a bed for a few nights. But from there, I’ll have to wait to see. Original idea was to head south to Cambodia, but I don’t know about roads going that way. Much easier is to point west to Thailand and put down in Chang Mai for a few days. Either way, travel awaits.

For now, the wonderful Valeria from Kyrgyzstan has left the building. French, Dutch, Russian, Indian, and lots of other nationalities rotate in and out. Had a good political conversation with young Matt from Canada; he tried to convince me of the value of third and fourth parties. A week is a long time for me to be still. Bob, an American living in India, will travel by bus with me to Luang Prabang.

Vientiane almost whispers its welcome. It’s low key, walkable, and has enough byways to get a little lost. It meets my needs. Remnants of colonial architecture linger, Buddhist temples are frequent.

Vientiane almost whispers its welcome and turned out not far from what I imagined. It’s low key, walkable, and has enough byways to get a little lost. It meets my needs. Remnants of colonial architecture linger, Buddhist temples are frequent, and they seem to enjoy strong coffee here. I rarely linger anywhere for a week. Yet this is just the sort of place to get over jet lag and to let your internal clock slip back a few decades.

A little history: between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on this small country. Eighty million bombs failed to explode, and to this day about 50 Laotians die or are maimed each year from leftover ordinance. Per capita, it is said to be the most heavily bombed country in history.

My Backpackers Hostel is just off the corner of Rues Setthathirath and Nokèokoummane across from the Mixay Temple. There are coffee shops on two of the corners, but this is my favorite.

My Backpackers Hostel is just off the corner of Rues Setthathirath and Nokèokoummane across from the Mixay Temple. There are coffee shops on two of the corners, one that I favor but both good for watching people coming down the rue. It’s sort of a throughfare, a couple of one-way lanes, and picks up pace about 7 a.m. Mornings, late afternoon, and evenings are my favorite times. Middays get a little warm (today will reach ninety), but it is mostly just about perfect.

I leave soon to Luang Prabang, looking for more Foldscope students.
Richard Dorsett
Vientiane, Laos

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