A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, Luang Prabang is one of Laos top tourist attractions. It’s surrounded by the Mekong and Khan Rivers.
Luang Prabang is the first province I visit outside of Vientiane. I went on a short weekend trip with my friend, Maria. Our weekend in Luang Prabang was a bit relaxing and fun at the same time.
As soon as we arrived and dropped off our stuff at the hotel, we went to bike around the town. It was very peaceful and breathtaking. There weren’t many cars on the road, so we felt completely safe biking around the Old City, the Old French Bridge, and along the rivers. For dinner, we decided to go to Manda de Laos. This restaurant has three lily ponds, which have been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage since 1995. The food and service were great! I will definitely go back again.
In case you didn’t know, Laos was known as “the land of a million elephants.” Now, Laos only has about 700 elephants left in the wild – and only 400 domesticated elephants. Therefore, one of the things I wanted to do in Luang Prabang was hang out with the elephants!!
On Sunday morning, we did a tour with MandaLao Elephant Conservation. It’s a sanctuary that provides an intimate non-riding experience with elephants. It was a very educational and enjoyable experience, which I highly recommend. I had the opportunity to feed and walk around with the elephants – Mae Kahm, 43yrs old and Mae Peng, 55yrs old. During our tour, we learned a lot of things about Asian elephants: they have smaller ears than African elephants; they have five fingers in the front feet and four in the back; they only have one finger at the tip of their trunk and African ones have two fingers; and their skin is less wrinkled than the African elephants.
On Sunday afternoon and evening, it was raining cats and dogs, so we had no choice but to stay inside. We ate ice cream, chatted, and took a nap as we hear the rainstorm sounds outside.
I definitely didn’t see everything I wanted, so I’ll be coming back to Luang Prabang again!
Did you know that Vientiane is THREE TIMES the size of New York City!? Yes, Vientiane is 1,510 sq miles while the Big Apple is 472.43 sq miles.
Vientiane became the capital of Laos in 1573. Vientiane’s seasons are: wet season (April – October) and dry season (November – March). And the temperatures vary from hot, hotter, and HOTTEST! Sometimes I start sweating as soon as I step outside. And my hair – forget it! That poor thing has never experienced so much humidity before. I can’t control my frizzy hair!
This beautiful city is home to notable monuments, such as Patuxay and Pha That Luang.
Patuxay Monument (ປະຕູໄຊ) translates to “Victory Gate.” It’s a massive war monument and triumphal arch located in the center of the city. It was built between 1957 and 1968 to commemorate the Lao soldiers who died during the war of independence from France in 1949. And guess where the funds came from? They were donated by the United States government to fund the construction of an airport.
The arch resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but followed the Laotian design. The exterior and interior of the monument includes Buddhist symbols, Hindu deities, and female spirits of the clouds and waters. Typically, during non-COVID times, people are allowed to go to the top of the monument. The fee is 5,000 KIP ($0.60).
Pha That Luang (ທາດຫຼວງ) translates to “Great Stupa.” It’s the national monument of Laos. In front of the Great Stupa, you’ll find a statue of King Setthathirat, who built the Great Stupa and relocated the capital city from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the 1500s. The Great Stupa is believed to house a breastbone of Buddha, which was brought by an Indian missionary in the 3rd century.
This gold-covered Buddhist stupa is approximately 147 feet tall (45m). Pha That Luang is surrounded by large gardens, monuments and temples, where monks still live and study. Additionally, as you walk around, you’ll see many altars with people’s pictures, flowers, and gifts. The two big temples to the right and left of the Great Stupa are: Wat That Luang Nuea (Northern Great Stupa Temple) and Wat That Luang Tai (Southern Great Stupa Temple). I had the opportunity to stroll around the detailed and colorful Wat That Luang Tai, which houses many Buddha statues and a gigantic golden reclining Buddha.
Just like that, in the blink of an eye, it’s been more than a month since I’ve living and working in Vientiane, Laos.
Let’s talk a little bit about the history of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, which used to be part of one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia, the Lan Xang Kingdom. Laos lost some of its territories to the French, which became part of Vietnam. It also lost territories to the Siamese, which became part of present-day Thailand. Approximately 80% of the country is hilly or mountainous and 70% of the population live in rural areas. I love all the green spaces!
Also, wanted to share two fun facts…1) Lao people literally eat spicy food every single meal! Including salads, desserts, snacks. I’m never safe! I always have to say I can’t eat spicy food. 2) Lao people are the highest consumers of sticky rice (khao niaow) in the world. Each person eats more than 345 pounds (156 kgs) per year!
OK. Enough history for now…I want to share with all of you a little snapshot of Vientiane, the capital and largest city of Laos. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to absorb everything, explore new places, try new foods, and practice my Lao language skills. Hope you enjoy my short video!
If I told you that my very first diplomatic trip: from the United States to Laos that is, would be a smooth transition, I would be lying. In theory, you would think diplomats would embark on any journey without any major obstacles –I was wrong. In fact, I can say unequivocally that this was the most nerve-racking and challenging trip I’ve ever had! And, I’ve done my share of traveling, in which I’ve encountered multiple obstacles. But nothing comes close to the amount of impediments that I encountered this time around.
There are so many moving pieces when it comes to traveling, particularly, when you are traveling during a pandemic and on Uncle Sam’s stingy budget. Now, we all know COVID-19 has made traveling domestically and internationally more challenging. So much so, that certain countries have closed their borders all together. Laos, is a perfect example of said draconian measures. Currently the borders in Laos are closed and the only way to get into the country is through humanitarian flights from Malaysia. These are flights organized by the United Nations and the only way to get a ticket is if you are a diplomat or an essential worker coming to Laos. These flights only operate on Sunday mornings, which means I had to leave D.C. on a Thursday in order to make it to Malaysia on Saturday, and take the humanitarian flight on Sunday. Essentially, one delayed flight on any of your connecting flights can sabotage your entire trip. So here we go…
On June 30th, I stayed up all night to prepare for the time change and to specifically sleep more during the long flight that way my body adjusts to the 11 hour differential. Now, July 1st is here, I get to the DCA airport at 5am for a flight that’s going to take off at 8am. There were no lines. The Delta representative checked my luggage with a final destination to Seoul, South Korea (plot twist: my actual final destination should have been Malaysia). But neither the rep nor I caught this mistake. She also didn’t tell me that I no longer had a connecting flight from Seoul to Malaysia, so evidently I would have been stuck at the airport in Seoul for at least 3 days.
By the time another Delta representative realized the mistakes, my bags had left to Atlanta without me. The embassy told me to contact the travel agency to book a new flight. The travel agency told me that I needed to be “unchecked-in” from the Delta flight. The Delta customer service line had an 8hr wait time. Meanwhile, I was trying to find the energy to continue making calls and find a solution.
Eventually, the travel agency booked me a new flight for the same day. My new flight was for 9pm, thinking I had all day to get my luggage from Delta. Yet, Delta only returned 2 of my 3 bags to D.C.. They claimed to know my 3rd luggage was in Atlanta but didn’t know exactly where. The options were: 1) fly to Laos and maybe never see the luggage again, 2) ask them to ship it to a friend’s house in the U.S., or 3) wait for them to find my luggage. After a couple of calls, I decided to stay in D.C. and wait for my luggage.
I was forced to find a hotel for a week and ask State Department to change my travel orders, so I could be authorized to work in D.C. for one more week.
On July 8th, my flight was delayed due to weather conditions in D.C.. I was afraid that I would not make my 40min connecting flight in Atlanta, so I talked to a Delta manager and she found another flight. My new itinerary was D.C. – Amsterdam – London – Malaysia – Laos.
All the planes were empty, so I always had an entire row to myself. Everything was relatively smooth until I got to London Heathrow Airport. London’s TSA is more strict than all countries I’ve ever traveled to. You have to worry about your liquids being less than 3oz AND make sure they fit inside a sandwich ziploc bag. Apparently, if all your liquid containers don’t fit inside the bag, you can’t take it — how lovely. They forced me to choose which Sephora beauty products were more important and they threw away the rest, which made me irate.
Then, when I got to the gate for my next flight, the Malaysia Airlines representatives told me that they had to weigh my carry-on. Apparently my carry-on could only weigh 7 kilos (~15 pounds). If it’s more than the that, they make you pay per kilo to check it in. They made me pay 324 pounds, about $450 USD to check-in my carry-on luggage! Insane! And once again, I had no choice but to do it in order to board the plane.
I spent one full day at the hotel inside the Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport without luggage and clothes because I couldn’t get any of my luggage until my final destination – Laos. I had a 28-hour layover in KL, in order to wait for the humanitarian flight. And I got to practice my Latin America skills of hand-washing clothes because the hotel did not have laundry services.
On Sunday, July 11th, I took the humanitarian flight with 15 other people and finally made it to Laos. The embassy staff greeted me at the airport and a van took me to start my 14-day hotel quarantine.
The State Department organizes languages in four categories: category I (romance), II, III (hard), and IV (super hard). I am required to learn a hard language for my first diplomatic assignment overseas. Typically, for a hard language like Lao, State Department requires diplomats to spend 44 weeks in language training. Yet, since I am an entry level officer, I get a shorter version of the course – 33 weeks. The goal of language training is for diplomats to reach a “professional working proficiency” in the language. In order for this to be possible, FSI keeps language classes small – about 4 students per class.
I started language training in September 2020 and finished in April 2021. And guess what? All my language training was online because of COVID. I had language classes Monday-Friday; we were expected to do 6 hours of Zoom classes each day, plus 2 hours of review and homework. Yet, homework and reviewing usually took me longer than 3 hours. When I initially started the language classes, I was worried and overwhelmed because it’s a different script and it’s a language with 6 tones!
The first couple of weeks, I took a 30min-1hr break after class. Then, I sat on my desk until 8-10pm writing the alphabet multiple times, watching whatever YouTube videos I could find, and reviewing the class material.
After a couple of months, I felt burnt out and I knew I had to find a better balance. I realized that I was doing much better than I thought, and I could afford “relaxing” a little. I also decided to make learning fun by creating digital content. I shared a little about my language learning experience on Instagram and YouTube. This helped me feel more confident with speaking the language and surprisingly entertained others as well.
My Lao class had 4 students – 2 new diplomats (including myself) and two diplomats that had been in the service for more than 10 years. Out of the 4 of us, only one person had learned a hard language before – Mandarin. Then, for the rest of us, it was the first time learning a hard language. I mean, I took summer language courses when I was in high school (Japanese, German, Swahili) but definitely not as intense and long as this!
Some days I felt very confident with the language and there were other days that I felt disoriented because I could not recall all the basic vocabulary. We spent about 2.5 months covering the “beginner” vocabulary – introductions, family, numbers, telling time, shopping, traveling, etc. Then, the “intermediate” level felt like I was starting at 0 again. It did not build on the previous book – it was completely new material. Particularly, words related to governance – the only vocabulary that State Department requires us to learn. We started covering topics like geography, the economy, education, government, and immigration. Our textbook had passages that covered these topics, so we can learn about the country of Laos while learning new vocabulary. Then, we were required to make presentations about the United States using the same vocabulary.
Besides online training, we had the opportunity to have some in-person learning. When the weather started to get a little better, the instructors organized some in-person cultural activities, which they would typically have during non-COVID times. We gathered at a park to eat some Lao food and to celebrate Lao New Year, which falls in April. During this celebration, I had the opportunity to learn the Lao circle dance, learn about their “baci” ceremonies (a good luck ceremony conducted for various festivities), eat traditional lao dishes, and wear traditional clothing like the Lao traditional skirt called “sinh.”
Throughout my language training, I had 3 evaluations – at 12 weeks, 26 weeks, and 33 weeks. The purpose of having the first two evaluations is to make sure are on track to meet the required score by the end of the course. For my 33-week language training, I was required to get at least a 2/2 (2 in speaking and 2 in reading). Thankfully, I was proficient in Lao by the expected deadline.
During my review period, I decided to get a personal tutor online. This tutor was based in Vientiane, Laos which means the lessons were more affordable and the experience was superb because I had the opportunity to practice speaking with a native and learn more about the culture and life in Laos.
I am excited to join the 6% of Latix Diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service! I officially joined the State Department on July 20, 2020 – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, my introduction to the Foreign Service was abnormal.
I was part of the second ever virtual orientation for U.S. Diplomats. We were all guinea pigs, as State Department tried to figure out how to train its next group of incoming foreign service officers. For the first time ever, State Department gave foreign service officers the option to stay at their state of residency for training or to relocate to Washington, D.C. and live in government-paid housing. Typically every newly hired diplomat relocates to Washington, DC or Virginia to start their in-person training.
I love Washington, D.C., so I’ll take any opportunity to move back! For housing, State Department gives us the opportunity to choose between apartments in Washington D.C. or Arlington, VA. I chose to live in Arlington in case we eventually went back to in-person training.
I moved to D.C. on a Sunday and I officially began A-100 on a Monday. “A-100” is the name of the orientation or training for newly hired U.S. Diplomats. This training is organized and led by instructors at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. A-100 is typically a 6-week orientation but mine was condensed to 4 weeks. To my understanding, the cohort can be as big as 100 students; mine was 86.
Training officially starts with a swearing-in ceremony. During A-100, we network with other diplomats joining the service, learn about how embassies operate overseas, hear from high-level diplomats, learn about the resources and benefits that State Department offers to diplomats, and learn about how the foreign service is not just a career but a lifestyle. Additionally, we learn more about the different “career tracks” of the foreign service. As foreign service officers we are characterized as “generalists” but we all chose a career track – like a specialty.
During A-100, foreign service officers also get their first “bid list.” The “bid list” is a database of all available entry-level jobs around the world. New diplomats have to do some research about the posts, think about their priorities, and rank all the jobs as high, medium or low. Diplomats have one weeks to do their homework and submit their list. Then, Career Development Officers (CDO) have two weeks to make the final decisions, while diplomats anxiously wait for the news until “Flag Day.” The first two tours of a new diplomat (which are typically 2 years each) are directed by their CDO. The 203rd U.S. Foreign Service class (my class) received their first bid list with 96 jobs, which meant that 10 positions were not be filled.
“Flag Day” is the highlight of A-100 — it’s the day that new diplomats find out their first assignment overseas. This is typically a big ceremony where State Department representatives call each name and deliver the news by giving a miniature flag representing the assignment. However, my Flag Day on August 12, 2020 was virtual. We had to get creative and plan our virtual celebrations. Thus, two other diplomats – including my best friend from graduate school – and I got together to celebrate our Flag Day together.
What comes after A-100 and Flag Day?
I’m excited to announce that I will be heading to Vientiane, Laos for my first diplomatic assignment overseas. I will be learning Lao for 33 weeks before heading to post. My 2-year tour in Laos starts summer 2021!
The summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to intern at U.S. Embassy Bogota and have my first experience inside a U.S. Embassy! Embassy Bogota is one of the top 10 largest U.S. Embassies, so I was exposed to many aspects of the foreign service. This experience also helped me decide my future cone – Public Diplomacy. As a U.S. Diplomat, one can choose between five different career tracks also known as “cones.” The five cones are: Consular Affairs, Economic Affairs, Management Affairs, Political Affairs, and Public Diplomacy.
The State Department describes Public Diplomacy Officers as “experts in cross-cultural relations and communications who build public awareness and promote U.S. interests abroad.” The Public Diplomacy Section is also known as Public Affairs Section (PAS) and it is divided into two sub-sections: the press team and cultural team. I interned with the press team. Embassy Bogota is an unusual embassy because of its size. Thus, the press team also had 3 sub-teams: print, digital, and studio.
As a press intern, I had the opportunity to manage the embassy’s Instagram page of 23K followers and create original content to post on the page and story. I also monitored the direct messages of the embassy’s Facebook page of 280k followers. I contributed to embassy digital media engagement by creating scripts and filming 6 “English Tip” videos to teach common English phrases and disseminate embassy messaging to the Colombian public. The topics ranged from commonly confused words to grammar lessons. I also helped the studio team with videography during embassy events for Instagram or Facebook Live. One of my biggest projects on the press side was revamping the embassy’s daily press communications by conducting an analysis of best practices of nine different U.S. Embassies in Latin America.
I also collaborated weekly with interagency partners including the military and over 10 local partners to plan for the arrival of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), which provides medical assistance to vulnerable communities throughout Latin America. I attended meetings in Spanish at different agencies in Colombia and at the embassy to coordinate all the details of the mission.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to work with the cultural team of PAS. I supported the cultural team by meeting with scholars that win scholarships to go study in the United States. For instance, I helped coordinate the Pre-Departure Orientation for the embassy’s Community College Initiative. I also gave a speech about my educational experience in the U.S. and the cultural differences between Colombia and the U.S. Additionally, I had the opportunity to participate in the Embassy Speakers’ Program by doing presentations for groups of more than 100 Colombian students about U.S. history and culture. I created a presentation on U.S. Independence Day to teach students the history of that holiday and how we celebrate it.
Upon completion of my bachelor’s degree, I explored avenues in the private and public sectors, specifically in retail, education, and social care. After my second year of working full-time, I thought more in-depth about my “dream career.” I concluded that throughout my personal and professional experiences, I have made public service to others a core component of what I do. Therefore, I wanted to have a proud profession where I could continue serving others beyond the walls of my community. Additionally, I felt it was time to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree. After thorough research and reaching out to a Georgetown friend who is a Foreign Service Officer, I concluded that the State Department Charles B. Rangel Fellowship was perfect for me. My new goal was to be part of the Rangel Family.
The mission of the Rangel Fellowship is to attract and prepare outstanding young people for careers in the U.S. Foreign Service and to diversify the State Department, in order to accurately reflect the rich diversity of the American people it represents overseas. The Rangel Fellowship put both of my goals together – my goal of pursuing my master’s degree and my goal of becoming a U.S. Diplomat.
This fellowship has a ~3% acceptance rate and the process to join the foreign service takes approximately 3 years – including 2 years of graduate school.
I had the honor to be selected as a 2018 Rangel Fellow in November 2017. My journey started on May 20th, 2018, with a one-week orientation to the Rangel Fellowship and the Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.. The orientation was followed by a 10-week internship on Capitol Hill, where I had the opportunity to intern with ranking member, Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island.
The congressional internship helped me learn more about how Congress operates and influences U.S. foreign policy. During the course of my internship, I participated in professional development workshops, learned about the foreign service through other diplomats and ambassadors, and attended an Ambassadorial Swearing-in Ceremony.
With the help of the Rangel Fellowship, I also pursued a Master of International Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy, as well as a double specialization in Latin American studies and the United Nations. As a future Foreign Service Officer, I think it is important to study urban cities, so I can prepare myself to think and engage critically about the economic, social, political, and technological forces that are shaping urban areas across the globe.
If you’re interested in a career in the foreign service and will also like to obtain your master’s degree, look into State Department fellowships! The State Department has 3 graduate fellowships related to the foreign service: the Charles B. Rangel Fellowship, the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship, and the Donald M. Payne Fellowship (under USAID).
Photo credits: SIPA, Columbia University and Charles B. Rangel Fellowship
My name is Marta (Mah-r-tah) Aparicio (Ah-pa-ree-cee-oh) and I’m a U.S. Diplomat. I was born in Zacapa, Guatemala. My parents immigrated to the United States when I was less than one year old, thus I was raised by my paternal grandmother – Mamá Marta.
Left with my grandma in Zacapa, it was not until January 14, 2003 that I met my parents for the first time and immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island without speaking English. Due to family problems, in 2009, as a 17-year-old senior in high school, I left my parents’ house with $500 in hand and the determination to educate myself. I worked 30 hours a week between a retirement home and a hospital, in order to survive as a teenager without parental support. As a 2010 high school class valedictorian, I realized that simply living in the United States does not better one’s life. My family obstacles and the need to carve out a better life for myself empowered me, while the United States provided me with the opportunity to start a new life, on my own.
At Georgetown University, I developed an appreciation for cultural diversity, as well as U.S. politics, through academic coursework and community service. My curiosity about the role of global politics also motivated me to study abroad for six months in 2013 in Madrid, Spain. I taught English to my host siblings and engaged in political discussions in Spanish with my host parents and classmates. As a Guatemalan-American representative in Europe, I gained an understanding of people’s cultures while working and building relationships with them.
I have made public service to others a core component of what I do. Teaching English at Miami Dade College allowed me to help students from Europe and Latin America. As an educator, I researched teaching and motivation techniques to keep my students engaged and motivated while developing a greater love and interest for the English language and the American culture. Additionally, as a mentor for two unaccompanied minors and one refugee, I also taught English and helped my mentees adapt to life in the United States. These experiences helped me become a better citizen committed to improving the lives of others through service.
In May 2020, I graduated from Columbia University in the city of New York, where I obtained a Master of International Affairs with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy, and a double specialization in United Nations and Latin American Studies.
I am a State Department 2018 Rangel Fellowship recipient and officially joined the State Department in July 2020. It will be a privilege to continue being an active citizen as a U.S. Diplomat representing America and promoting its national interests abroad. Since immigrating 18 years ago, the United States has empowered me to make a better life for myself to serve my country.
Picture Credits: EB.Lens Photography and Foto Sami