By Alex van der Meer

It takes 15 seconds to read this first paragraph. Fifteen seconds to get an idea of what I am doing. If the idea interests you, you may stay longer. I’m doing a PhD at the Fenner School at ANU in collaboration with the ACIAR project, “Improving policies for forest plantations to balance smallholder, industry and environmental needs in Lao PDR and Vietnam”. I’m evaluating how the establishment of tree plantations affects the livelihoods of rural households in Laos. You still there?

Anyway, in December last year, fueled with enthusiasm from receiving my ethics approval and my supervisors’ green light to go ‘into the field’, I was determined to get right into the ‘data collection’. Yes, I was a man with a plan, a plan saved as ‘fieldworkplan.xlsx’ to be precise. Eight months into my fieldwork plan, the most realistic version of my calendar read  ‘fieldwork plan (3) – updated version (2) saved after VCA visit adjustment (autosave).xlsx’. Lesson 1: one step at a time and come up with a good document naming system.

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Alex enjoy lunch during some of his field work

Like in any other country in the region and beyond, it is virtually impossible for foreigners to conduct independent research in Laos, unless the researcher has a desire to reenact the latest season of ‘Homeland’. In my case, I decided to take the ‘safe’ way and seek central authority permission.  When I finally managed to get the right stamps on my permission letters (six months later), my own initial proposal was not relevant anymore as, during my waiting time, local authorities concluded that only two companies could establish tree plantations as usual from then onwards. Lesson 2: be flexible and adaptive (aka delete previous plan versions). Ironically, in that period, I also got response to my early attempts to access the field through the companies I am ‘investigating’. The message was short and clear: “Dear Alexander, I am sorry for the late response. Attached is list of two farmers and two villages. Below is the telephone number of our staff who you can contact if you want to visit”. Lesson 3: be patient but persistent

With three interesting case studies identified, there was no reason to ‘waste’ more time in the city. Ethics-certified: check. Plan: check. Red-stamped letters: check. Multi-pocket field trousers: check. But, damn! random-selection fell on sites without cafés and multigrain bread bakeries. My proposal was influenced by other researchers who had spent several consecutive months in one village or numerous long trips over an eight-year period. Advise from my panel of advisors was that six weeks per village “should be enough” to understand village livelihoods and to develop a ‘relationship’ with research participants. But random selection was giving me Lesson 4: location influences methodology. In other words, (Lesson 5) buy a reliable fieldwork proof coffee making device and take enough coffee for extended discussions with everyone in the village! (click here for more advice on getting good coffee while in the field). 

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Alex in action during his field work


My husband Alex is a passionate coffee drinker, a tragic addict. Being from Spain, he is in constant pursuit of the ‘café cortado’. It’s not a latte, it has less milk and it’s not an expresso, it has some milk.  He prefers it if the milk is warm, not added as an after-thought like it sometimes is at hotel breakfasts and definitely not a scalding 2000⁰C which is common in some parts of the world.

Christmas day coffee

The perfect coffee experience. Christmas day 2015 in Vientiane, Laos. 

Like any addiction, there are highs and lows to the coffee experience and these are particularly pronounced in an overseas environment, when the addict is presented with unacceptable uncertainties.  What kind of coffee will they have at the hotel? Is there going to be a kettle in the room? During the field trip, will there be access to boiling water? Can cold milk be purchased in the village or does it lack electricity?  These might seem like ‘first world problems’ to many, but I encourage you not to judge until after you’ve endured a week with Alex in what we call an ‘unacceptable coffee situation’.

On this international coffee day (October 1st  https://internationalcoffeeday.org/, or September 29th in Australia) , I’d like to present tips for ensuring a good coffee is always possible, in all conditions. The most logical way to do this is to describe common environments where coffee is available and recommendations on the quality of options.

The ‘Café’

So you’ve just arrived in Bangkok after the red eye and you are pleased to see the familiar neon sign reading ‘Café’. A few things to be aware of;

  • The term ‘café’ is used loosely in some countries and coffee as you know it may not actually be available here
  • Note that just because a coffee machine is present, it doesn’t mean it will be used and if it is used, it might not be used in the way you expect

Recommendation: Make a quick assessment on the facilities behind the sign. Inspect the coffee machine and be specific, but as comprehensible as possible about your order. Watch for the addition of condensed milk and sugar.  

The hotel breakfast

Hotel breakfasts produce the most variable quality of coffee.  A few things to keep in mind;

  • Usually the coffee that is refilled at your table is part of a large brew, and higher quality machine coffee can be obtained by asking
  • In some hotels machine coffees are charged, whereas coffee from those horrible American diner style jugs are free
  • Boiling water is almost always available, even at the most basic of hotels/guesthouses so if in doubt, bring your own ingredients and coffee making device (see below)

Recommendation: Bring your own device just in case and if you are offered the American diner style jug, attempt to order separately.

The small eatery

It’s close to midday and after an early start, you haven’t had your coffee yet. You pull up for lunch at a roadside eatery. Here are a few tips;

  • In countries where coffee is grown, you can sometimes get a decent coffee at one of these places made through a simple device as shown below

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  • If you are health conscious, beware of the condensed milk and sugar addition and if you’re not, go crazy – that stuff is delicious!
  • In most cases, you’ll be presented with the dreaded instant coffee and even worse the ‘X in one’. ‘X’ can be any number from 3 to 7 and it’s safe to say that all 3-7 ingredients are toxic to your body. The proportions are all wrong and most are a cup full of sugar with a sprinkle of instant coffee, powder milk and an additional 1-4 unnecessary ingredients (mushrooms or ginseng for example)

Recommendation: Avoid X in one at all costs. If you see a genuine coffee making device, in a coffee growing country, consider giving it a try.

The workshop/meeting

You’ve just listened to the world’s longest powerpoint presentation and the coffee break has finally arrived. You rush to the front of the queue to assess your options. Here are some tips;

  • You are likely to be presented with the large batch brew or the dreaded X in one.

Recommendation: In a city or upmarket hotel, a proper café may be within walking distance in the 20-minute time frame. Gather together a group and make a mad rush.  In more basic conditions, you may consider bringing your own device and ingredients and utilizing the hot water available for tea.

The village

You are collecting data in a small village for 3 weeks. Here are some things to consider;

  • Unless you are in a larger center, you will probably need to bring your own device
  • If you take milk in your coffee, you might want to consider bringing small UHT milks or milk powder
  • Coffee can bring people together and being the village barrister may help you to score a few extra field work assistants

Recommendation: Bring your own coffee making device (see below) and essential ingredients.  Make sure you bring enough ingredients to prepare coffee for the whole village.

Here are some of the above mentioned coffee making devices that you should consider investing in.

The coffee press (plunger)

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Pros: Only requires hot water and ground coffee (which you can purchase before your trip) so can be used in the most basic conditions

Cons: Annoying to clean

The stovetop maker

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Pros: Some nostalgic Spanish and Italian people prefer this model as it brings them back to their origins. The taste can be stronger, when you don't let coffee boil for a long time.  

Cons: Requires a stove

The aeropress

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Pros: Churns out a brilliant coffee if you have the right beans and access to hot water

Cons: Can be a bit fiddly and you need to keep a stash of filters

The coffee machine

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Pros: Exceptional quality

Cons: Difficult to transport and requires electricity and skilled operator 

Enjoy reading RAID blogs? Submit your own blog for a chance to win some great prizes and to share your own experiences in international agricultural research for development (click here for more information)

Thursday, 07 January 2016 11:00

Wearing your big girl pants

By Emma Zalcman

‘Bor dai’…… It’s a phrase I’ve learnt to accept. It means ‘can not’ in Lao. It’s not that it happens all the time, but when it does, it tempts me to lay on the ground and commence a grand mal tantrum.

I was standing in the Lao digital TV company. I was asking if it was possible to buy extra channels. I had connected the TV, hoping I could watch the Australia channel or maybe some BBC. Apparently, I ‘can not’. It sounds like a first world problem. I had been watching CNN’s seemingly rolling coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for the last 48 hours (since I connected the TV) and was at breaking point. I considered arguing…. (why couldn’t I pay for extra channels?). I considered crying (I really like TV). In the end I decided to do neither. I put my big girl pants on and walked out of the shop…..adult-like but deflated.

Some people are probably reading this thinking ‘What is wrong with this person, why is she so upset about only having one English television channel?’. However, it came at the end of a difficult day. Fibre-optic internet was also a ‘can not’ (despite being a ‘can’ when we signed the lease) and our boxes from Australia had finally arrived with many of our things broken. Not to mention the difficulties we were having organising the delivery of water and the thousands of dengue carrying mosquitoes that were offended when we moved into their house.  

Moving countries can be tough and sometimes it feels like you will never get everything organised. But two weeks later, some real news has finally made it onto CNN, the internet is working ok and water is arriving regularly. We are in business! All of a sudden there is time to enjoy $2 plates of Pad Thai and fresh BBQ pork buns. My husband has acquired one of those battery operated tennis racquets that you use to electrocute mosquitoes. It makes a surprisingly enjoyable activity in the evenings and the accompanying swatting sound it makes when you get one is very satisfying. My advice to those relocating to the field: stay calm, act your age and buy one of those mosquito killing tennis racquets.

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Emma Zalcman

Very occasionally, when I’m talking about upcoming travel, I get met with ‘you always go to ‘weird’ countries’ or a personal favorite ‘one of my friends went there and came back with (insert horrific exotic disease here)’.

Firstly, I’m not sure why some people categorize any country outside the G20 as ‘weird’. Secondly, who are all these people that contract malaria, dengue, yellow fever, giardia and rabies all at once on their trips to Bali and Phuket? Some of the symptoms recalled to me, sound suspiciously like a hangover.

With all the horror stories that float around (not to mention classic late night television series like ‘banged up abroad’; another personal favorite), I thought I would reflect on the things I love about the developing world. From my experiences, here is my top 5 (obviously not applicable in every single developing country).

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Photo: Jack Koci

  1. The ‘yes we can’ attitude. And I’m not talking about the Obama election campaign. I’m talking about the transportation of people and cargo in developing countries. Can we fit our whole family of 6 people on a motor bike? Yes we can. Can we fit 70 people, 5 goats, 3 pigs, 14 bags of rice and 10 chickens on a bus designed for 30 people? Yes we can. 4000 eggs stacked on the bag of a bicycle? No problem. All the farmers coming to the meeting on a single tractor? Of course. 
  2. The enthusiasm and innovation of goods and service delivery. If there is a place where someone might like to buy something, it’s there. I’m talking about the corner shops….on every corner. I’m talking about a ‘mobile ATM’ service, seen recently pulling up to a Lao university. Honestly, a truck pulled up with an ATM on the back to be greeted with a queue of eagerly waiting students, bank cards in hand. When all the students had made their transaction, the ATM was loaded back onto the truck and moved onto its next location. Don’t even get me started on the solar panel mobile phone charging services on road sides in Africa.
  3. Give everything you have. It seems that the less that you have, the more that you give. I think many of you will have been in that embarrassing situation, where someone with not much, provides you with an extravagant meal or tries to give you an elaborate gift. The next week, you briefly recall that moment when you are at an expensive restaurant in Sydney, tuning out whilst your investment banker and doctor friends scrupulously split the bill down to every last item.
  4. Waste not, want not. Nothing is more horrible than cleaning your house and trying to get rid of furniture and clothing you no longer need. Not in the developing world, it’s not. When I left Laos, I invited every Lao woman I knew to see if they wanted anything from the house. Everything was gone in 3 hours. In the next few weeks, I kept seeing friends and colleagues walking around in clothes of mine that they had altered to suit their own figures. I’m embarrassed to admit, I can barely sew a hem.
  5. Know thy neighbor (at least in rural areas). Many of you will be familiar with obligatory trips to the village chief’s house or the village office prior to undertaking development activities in rural areas. What always impresses is the level of detail known about every person in the village. The way the village leader can list every household, how many people live under each roof and how many cows, chickens and goats each person has. I don’t even know my next door neighbors name. Not to mention every one raising everybody else’s children. I was about 20 before I ever held a baby. In these villages I see kids of 15, looking after 4 children from 3 different families.