Sept 17, 2016, Villa Lotus, Luang Prabang, Laos
We just finished eating our breakfast at the garden cafe downstairs. We had asked the manager Oscar yesterday that we wanted fresh spring rolls for breakfast because the last time we had it here, the chef had outdone himself!! Then we also asked for a couple of portions of steamed rice to carry along with us as we are driving down to Xieng Khuang, which is about 5.5 to 6 hours or driving time from Luang Prabang. Oscar was happy to do it and he immediately called up his colleague to give the instructions.
Today when we finished having our fruits, we asked the server to serve us the fresh spring rolls and he asked if he should also serve the steamed rice along with the fresh spring rolls. We said no, we just want to eat the spring rolls for breakfast and the steamed rice was for take-away. He understood and served us the awesome fresh spring rolls. The point is, Oscar is a great communicator, he speaks the local language and he speaks English well and he understood our requirements very clearly, but when he told the kitchen staff about our request, look at how it got misunderstood. They had both the steamed rice and the fresh spring rolls ready, no problems there, but they thought we were going to eat them both during breakfast :). There is some cultural element to it – Laotians do eat rice (mostly sticky rice) with Mango for breakfast, so the kitchen staff must have assumed that’s what we asked for.
Yet another example of a misunderstanding that almost brought this trip to a standstill. When we met our tour manager at Vientiane we told him that we don’t want any public bus travel for long distances as Krishnan and I both will feel uncomfortable if the vehicle is not air-conditioned. The weather in Laos is hot and humid with refreshing spells of rains every now and then. He said sure, we will get you a public minivan that would be air-conditioned and not like the public bus. Well, we got onto the public minivan which is Hyundai Starex, 12-seater, only to realise that the public minivan does not switch on the AC. There were 12 of us cramped, uncomfortable with diesel fumes and body odour and bad roads, in a minivan that had air-conditioning but not switched on, for 3.5 hours. They were the longest 3.5 travelling hours in a automobile. Now, either the tour manager misunderstood our request or he forgot to tell us that we need to insist on the driver switching on the AC or we didn’t communicate our needs clearly.
The last example of misunderstanding from our travels – we are vegetarians. We don’t eat meat, fish, fish sauce, eggs, chicken, or any animal product except milk. We had made that amply clear to our travel agent before coming here. At Nong Khiaw we went on a boat tour of the famous Muong Ngoi caves and some villages. The trip was outstanding, the sights stunning, and our tour guide brought packed lunch for us. The packed lunch was sticky rice, vegetables and a omelette…. a small detail was forgotten, the vegetables were made with beef stock and had some fish in them. In Laos and many south east Asian countries, why in Bengal, fish is vegetarian !! Thats the height of misunderstanding that we cannot deal with :):). Our tour guide was heart broken that we didn’t eat anything, but we told him, it was impossible for us to eat. So, please note, this is not about intentional misdeed.. our tour guide was a lovely person and our tour agency people are equally great, its just a cultural context that resulted in this misunderstanding.
So the point is – while communicating, check back with the individual if they have understood what you have said the way you want them to understand …. you might have communicated clearly, but there are several cultural and contextual screens that your communication is filtered through before it reaches the other person, so they may just miss understanding you.
Check back to avoid such gaffes.