note: this too is a double post, though they move chronologically. post 20 is a little more than halfway down...
My life has been significantly affected by chickens. Many of you know the Fred Jameson’s house chicken story (either in my telling or Linz’s highly apocryphal and ever-metastasizing version); some of you know my travails this summer with the so-called Maui rooster (with all the windows closed -- despite having no AC -- and with earplugs in, I was still regularly awakened by crowing at 3:30 a.m – and not for the first time. It turns out the fucker was literally on the other side of my bedroom window. So I got up and went outside and, I kid you not, he gave me a sheepish, yeah I know I shouldn’t be squawking 3 hours before sunrise look before sulking away). Well, things that look a hell of a lot like the Maui rooster abound in Laos as well, and seem in similar lack of possession of a Farmer’s Almanac. Add to this an apparent community alarm clock of dogs fighting (normally around 6 or before) and the fact that when a door closes in the most of these guest houses, it sounds like the slamming of the portal of Ugolino’s tower of hunger, and you will understand why I haven’t exactly been sleeping in. As a result, my bedtimes have been getting earlier and earlier. When 9 rolls around now, I’m pretty much down for the count.
Some Westerners just came in and asked my landlady if there was hot water. She just giggled. Love that. A few minutes later I offered her a lao lao and she laughed again, only this time a bit more trepidatously.
An incredibly long, unbelievably slender dragonfly (my favorite of all animal groups) just landed on the rim of my whiskey glass. Clearly not everyone in Laos is afraid of lao lao. You’d think that since the name for it is just the country name said twice that it would be a little more popular. Addendum: my new friend (more on her in a second) tells me that in many of the villages, the men drink it morning to night, and don’t allow themselves – or anyone – to stop on an odd-number of glasses full, so you’d better be prepared to roll…
Day 20: So I came up here to rent a bike and see some hill villages; well, instead I buy a beer and meet a Dutch woman. Unlike the village women, she is not wearing her wealth in silver coins and buttons stitched onto elaborate headscarves and vests, she does not have a near-toothless mouth slicked from the inside with crimson (if that’s betel they’re chewing, they must have a quarter pound of it in there); she is not wearing shinguards of denim (very fashion forward) or long necklaces of beads or shells; her head is not wrapped nor under a triangled straw hat or colored headdress, and she would state her height American style by starting with a 6, not a 4. She biked herself up here from Namtha; she is exceptionally fit, might outweigh, and could almost certainly outlift me. Her name is Paola; she proves to be delightful company.
Day 21: But when day comes, the sun is pretty brutal; I see dozens of women of various villages at the market (including a line of 20 or so of them each selling her hooch from truck oil jugs or old Wesson bottles); and I conclude that that’s probably enough, and what I really want to do is get back to Namtha, go online, connect, relax, and get my bearings again. Paola is biking back down today as well, and wants me to then accompany her to the northwest corner of Laos (we are currently in northernmost central). Where she’s going is all but Yunnan China (which I will save for another trip), plus it will take two days to arrive and I would have to just turn around again to make it all the way back to Vientiane to catch my fancy flight to Burma. Oh well. I’m also beginning to feel ready to move on – I recognize the signs now: feeling like I’ve eaten all the different foods at the market, that I’ve gone as far as I can power myself from wherever my base is, that I’ve learned as many phrases as I’m going to learn and will never make the jump to anything substantial, and that I’ve seen a few too many of the white faces more than once, and it’s time to skedaddle. So I’m seeing Paula this evening; tomorrow I’ll bike one final direction to a few more villages, do the postponed homestay overnight and guided daytrek; then I’ll come back Wednesday evening for the new years festivities, whatever they’ll consist of, and Thursday I’ll take the 19-hr bus to Vientiane. Friday I fly. A northern Laos tripped boxed nicely and tied with a bow.
Day 22: You might think I’d have had a bad day: Paola left early this morning; my homestay excursion proved to be a 50-km mountainous trip just to have lunch (I got to the village and there was no government tourism office as I had been told there’d be, nor anyone who spoke even a word of English as I was told there’d be, so I had a bowl of noodles with a local woman and her mother – who told me she’s had 8 children – bought a little of her lao lao and then rode back.); I drank the village water by mistake (it looked very much like tea – eeks); and the water buffalo I took a photo of (for its simply prodigious hornrack) gave me a highly convincing I-might-charge look. This is not the first time I’ve been stared down by an animal that clearly saw I was yellow. I backed away like a good pansy.
But instead today’s been great. On my bike trip back from the homestay debacle, I pulled over when I saw an old village woman toting tons of stuff on her head and back while walking on the main road. I sign-asked her if she wanted a lift, and she gave me the most hysterical shy, no-no-no, red-cavern smile. God knows how many decades she’s been toting that burden up and down the mountain, but I suspect I was the only falang on a bike to try to pick her up. So hysterical. I love it when really old ladies get super girlish.
I also raced some schoolboys on their bikes and let them win, saw some stunning scenery (with many of the stilted hunter’s shacks along the mountainsides, so lovely), had earlier been invited into the home by the old lady with 8 kids (and she gave me some of her what I think is shredded palm and chili salad – smoking!); and I prior to that I had breakfasted on the only dish yet to challenge the gorgeous laab lady’s gorgeous laab (more on her soon): it was a banana-leaf wrapped thing with chicken in it, but mostly it was just an incredibly layered almost soupy sauce for sticky rice balls, detailed in the extreme and completely mystifying. It did have these inedible wood bits that I believe come from these very hairy sticks I’ve seen the village women selling; I’ll have to get those at the IGA when I get back and make the dish for you. (Hairy sticks? Aisle eleven)
I’ve been asking the names of all the foods, and one I need to look up (if I can get the transliteration at all correct) is de mon (day’ mon) PIC. I had a bite this morning; are these fried maggots? Can I get a ruling on this from someone? (Postscript: turns out they are grubs, which I’ve eaten before). They were not very good, and not identifiable as vegetable or meat. I really don’t know. The women at the market now all know that I buy lots of stuff, so they let me taste everything. Very nice, even when you end up with a mouthful of grubs.
Some random notes: the top speed of those crazy trucks seems to be 15mph, but it doesn’t seem to matter how loaded they are or how steep the climb is, they make it.
Meanwhile the vans shaped to look a bit dragonish with Thai temple kinds of lines to them (and with spoilers on the back) are a very bad idea.
At the market, I see two beasts for sale, still furred, that seem equal part rat, hare, and baby deer. God knows. Perhaps they gave up the ghost for the mystery jerky I had a 2 days ago. Yum.
Many of the village women have big wicker baskets that they turn into backpacks; that would go over well at UArts. But I still prefer the ones who tote their bags by draping the strap over their foreheads and going hands-free. I’d try that with my messenger bag but my brother sees evidence that my hairline has already seen its high tide.
There’s a Pekingese dog in town that only barks at village people, not Lao or whites.
Judging from the evidence I’ve seen live of here dogs and on television of recorded rhinoceri, female mammalia do not seem to want to copulate, nor to enjoy it when it’s “thrust upon them.”
The math and commerce senses here are even worse than I imagined. I had a bus fare of 22,000 kip so I have the girl a 2,000 note and a 50,000 note, which I wanted to get rid of. She looked at it like I had given her a flounder. I finally just took it back and gave her two tens. Then later I bought 1,000 kip worth of mia and the girl had no change for a 2,000. These are as small of notes as they use, but for the 500 (6 cents). And everything she sells is 1,000! Turns out that Paola taught at a school in Thailand for a month and said that there is literally no learning whatsoever, that the teachers go on vacation all the time, there are no tests, they never try to give the students more than 5 minutes of focused teaching at a time, no one does their homework and it doesn’t matter, etc. When she asked the headmaster if maybe they should do something differently, he said, “Talk to the government.”
Old ladies here are very good burpers. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever gotten more out of a belch at the poker table than I’ve heard a number of these belles dames manage. I haven’t heard any other people burp – just them.
I don’t know if there’s some genetic continuum that passes from grouse to wild turkey, but if there is, every shade of that spectrum is present here. I can no longer tell what’s what: the borders of the species blur so, there are innumerable size and color variations (I finally gave up trying to photograph them). The chickens do seem to be the croakers; the turkeys do their warbling thing (but in tones unfamiliar to me); the grouse or whatever they are (tasty looking) scuttle and squeak, and they all seem to breed and breed. Then line the roadsides, fill the villages, and occasionally are tied in bundles with broken necks either at the market or to the back of someone’s scooter. Oh, and you can buy them all live (sitting under weighted baskets) at the market.
In the village today there was also an incredibly massive black sow with an enormous teat sack and ten or so tiny piglets running after. I didn’t take a picture because I didn’t want to show up camera-happy for my homestay, but the piglets were really adorable and the mam something of a sublime of the gigantic and the ridiculous all at once.
The local bottled whiskey here is called Red Lion, and it assures you on the label that it was distilled under the supervision of an expert from Australia. Australian whiskey? That guy must have done a selling job like the 18yr-old Orson Welles convincing the Irish he was as a young “famous American actor” and landing a lead. And why, while we’re at it, do Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and America each have a whiskey of their own, but England no (nor Australia or NZ to my knowledge)? Did the brits think they’d done well enough with gin? Odd.
There are a lot of photos I don’t take, obviously. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I don’t tend to photograph people at all. I just don’t feel comfortable; it feels too anthropologically gawky or something. And I don’t photograph the food either unless I’ve bought some of it; then I ask. The one time I broke my rule was today when I asked if I could photograph a rat in the market (since I only did video of mine – idiot), and she said no and made the thumb-and-forefinger-cricketing money sign (which I had not known was universal). She clearly felt gawked at, and I felt awful (nor did I know how to say, But I’m not just a poser! I just ate one of those last week!).
On a brighter note, I finally told the laab lady that she’s beautiful. I had just bought another one and she clearly remembered me, for I heard her saying “laab, laab” as I got closer. She’s probably close to 30, tall with a long regal face and moviestar mouth so that when she smiles it spreads to expose one more tooth on either side than the non-Julia Robertses among us can show. And her teeth are perfect and very white, which is a little uncommon here (though the Laos are nowhere near as bad as the Chinese I’ve seen. My hotel room had some Chinese “toothpaste” and it was actually wood-pulp colored). She could easily be an abducted asian Bond princess or the lead one of those empty Chinese artsy films for export only (like that stupid Lantern one).
So anyway, as I’m leaving, having told her that her laab is delicious, I lean in just a touch and say “nam” – which means beautiful – and point to her. I thought I did it pretty subtly, and she didn’t seem to catch it, but the woman next to her then laughs and says, “Nam” a bit more loudly. Now the laab lady understands; out flash the teeth – so many – even as she’s raising a hand to her face mid-blush, but I can see her radiate more than a little. I of course hurry away, feeling very good.
Post 20: In which our hero’s GI lining proves mortal
Day 22, evening: I gave in and walked to the honkie restaurant to have a beer and type as a sort of prelude to tomorrow night (everyone seems to have picked this one joint, as we tend to do. By bike today I noticed a few mansions being built on the edge of town. Now I know whose making enough to build them). My thinking is that if I’m seen here now, maybe I will have an easier time talking to or being talked to by other people when the party starts manana. It’s a little grim: they’re all eating; I heard the guy next to me pay for he and his girlfriend’s 2 beers, French fries, and spaghetti -- literally. Across the street is the night market, the Calypso of laab, and all its other treats, and here they are, en masse. And here I am. Is there a little gravity to our own kind that I’m feeling? I remember in the 45 days spent on the greyhound that the seat next to me was always the last one taken, and I suspected it was because each new entrant could imagine a kinship more easily in someone else they saw sitting instead of with me (I would always choose to sit next to old people, so that tells you about my kinship radar). And now I feel the pocking of my haughty armor, the pinging sound of unexpected rains, but even so, I still have a strong suspicion that I’ll be going to be tomorrow before the chiming even of 11.
In any case, my social fort-da game will soon be ending (a major question, of course, is whether Paola made me feel less lonely or more). I’ll be in India in a week, traveling with Jeremy (one of the two official members of my parish) and perhaps meeting up with my friend Jyl (a kind of outreach), and there’s even been talk of crossing vectors with Mick and Martin, who continue to send plaintive emails about the abjection of their meals without me. (sidenote: just saw some girls posing for a trip photo and have to give a shout-out to Rufus, who spotted his son Declan’s first face-making for the camera and did a little video ode about the slippery slope from there. Too true, too true.).
I’m glad they serve Malibu spiced rum here. That’s vital.
Just saw ice for the first time in Laos. In Vietnam and Cambodia, ice was almost an obsession (you could barely have a beer without them slipping in cubes). But here, no. One can only imagine a local village kid having the Aureliano Buendia experience were he to hoof his way into town and trade his brace of grouse for a glass of grog.
I believe many of you, my mom especially, will be pleased to know my eating or drinking finally caught up to me (hey, even Sandy Koufax gave up a run every once in a while, right? And Jeremy, the fact that the greatest pitcher in baseball history was Jewish must give you some hope for your tennis game). I ended up spending the latter part of yesterday evening in bed feeling on the verge of some civil unrest, either north or south of the Mason Dixon. It was as if a golfball was doing the Neptune thing of being swirled with poisonous gasses and had lodged itself just below my belly button (I tend to call this “pickling” myself, which my Mother loves – though she claims not to – because it’s somehow the world’s bacterial backlash to my hubris).
So, yes, I’m pickled, and the likely culprit is the village “tea,” though I also had eaten a bit of some Cambodian dried sausage that had been riding around in my bag for a week, and had wolfed down all the nicely spiced “giblets” in the village soup. God knows (could it have just been the bar company?). I end up not being able to eat the laab I bought and ultimately liberate myself Vesuvially of the ill-fated social beer and all other remnants. Post which, I felt rather decent.
Day 23: New Years Eve. Perhaps not the best time to wake still feeling kind of dodgy, but oh well. The question for me is whether to concede that I won’t make it to midnight nor make any headway with the 3 swedish girls who took the room next to mine and just get on the bus to Vientiane now. I’m very tempted – in part to see what the Lao celebration of the new year amid a 19-hr bus trip would be -- but the thought of the tremors the mountain roads will put the bus through make me a little anxious.
Turns out there’s no bus till tomorrow, which is no surprise I guess because the banks were closed yesterday and will be till the 2nd. (and, to keep with this gripe, a girl today couldn’t add 35 and 40, nor could she subtract 75 from 80. and even when I tell them the results, it doesn’t click, and they have to take out the calculator. Incredible)
So I’ve laid low most of the day. I did some shopping (presents!), ate some sticky rice and a few oranges, drank water and a little iced coffee and rested up. I did brick the groundwork for company for this evening by going outside and offering my Laos guide to some people who just arrived (the Swedish girls checked out this morning, tragically). That got us talking, then I brought out the mia, and now I have friends for the evening. (The whole smoking thing is really a life-saver, ironically, because it puts people outside in ready circulation and you can nab them). Since I’ve been in bed three quarters of today, I might even make midnight.
By the way, I should mention that I’ll be thinking very much of all of you tomorrow on my bus trip. At noon my time new york will be lowering the ball and most of you will be hugging and kissing people that I wish were me. I’ll still be aboard for the subsequent time zones too, so my friends in California and Alaska, I’ll try to raise a glass of lao lao to you as well. Maybe if I can get the people on board celebrating the various new years with me, it will be quite a party.
Ok, it’s a short second half to a double post, but I think I’ll go ahead and get it up. Enjoy yourselves, all, and when you can see again through the haze and pain, I will probably have written and posted a little something from the biz lounge in Vientiane or Bangkok. If not, hopefully within a few days, as I think Myanmar is allowing internet, as long as I don’t mention the putsch.
Much love, undiminished despite wide-spreading