My favourite earrings at the moment are a pair of shiny, heavy metal tear drops fashioned out of recycled UXO from Ma Te Sai's pop up shop in Vientiane.
UXO stands for Unexploded Ordnance; the bombs that failed to explode when they were dropped from planes, and lie dormant in the ground. UXO is a huge and ongoing problem for Laos along the border with Vietnam (the Ho Chi Minh trail). The Lao government estimates that 25% of Laos's 10,000 villages are affected by UXO. You may not be aware - I wasn't - but tiny little Laos is the most heavily bombed nation on earth. It's quite incredible considering all the wars that have happened globally in the last century.
A massive 260 million "bombies" - small round bombs about the size of tennis balls housed inside a bigger, missile-shaped cluster bomb - were dropped on Laos by the Americans during the Second Indochina War and the Vietnam War, 1964 and 1973. Of these, 30% failed to detonate on impact - the UXO. Which means they lie hidden in Lao soil, in fields, forests, and rivers. The threat of UXO has rendered over 35% of Laos's arable land unsafe, a serious blow for an agricultural country.
Yet these areas are home to hundreds of thousands of people; they live and farm here. And each year about 300 people, many of them children playing outside, inadvertently step on or disturb the earth around these UXO, with devastating results.
And in Vientiane, there is COPE - Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise - a free, national rehabilitation service that provides prosthetic limbs, surgery, physical therapy, and support for disabled people and their families. This is the visitor's centre and it really is a must see for anyone visiting Laos.
The centre has a great exhibition that is open to anyone. There are displays of war munitions, prosthetics and other aids for disabled people, many homemade and fashioned out of beaten tin and sticks or carved out of wood. There are excellent videos depicting the impact of UXO in Laos. There is also a giftshop and a cafe, and plenty of information about the work of COPE in Laos.
Although UXO is a primarily factor in prosthetic use in Laos, COPE also supports people impacted by conditions such as club foot, and traffic accidents. COPE has been operating since 1997 yet many poor Laotians in rural areas are not aware of the service; as a result their injuries and disabilities are often not treated as soon as they could be. It's one of the ongoing issues that COPE, its donors and the Lao government have to manage.
Coming back to my earrings - they're evidence of the resilience, adaptability and ingenuity of the Lao people. Recycled UXO is a huge industry and the Laotians have fashioned all sorts of practical and ornamental objects out of the remnants of war.
Resilience is not just about surviving however, it's about thriving. For many poor and disadvantaged Laotians, COPE has literally turned their lives around. And that's worth smiling about. From the pictures of laughing limb bearers to the fun-poking "I went to Laos and all I got was... [a wooden leg]" placard, COPE is proof that sometimes laughter can be the best medicine.
The COPE Visitor Centre is located inside the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation on Khouvieng Road, opposite the Green Hotel. They are open daily from 9am-6pm.