Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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Don't really know where to start with this one. Just got out of another hour-and-half steambath session at the legendary Laos Red Cross, though this one was much more needed than the others.
I'll be bruised to buggery in the morning. I mean this: hanging on the outside 'lip' at the back end of a clapped-out truck clinging for all your worth to the steel roof rails as you cross the hideous terrain of rural Laos - with it's mud baths, landslides and standard minefield of steep and oh-so-sudden pot holes - is a killer, especially when you have to hang on tightly for four and a half hours. Believe me, four and a half hours of that is a shitty endurance. I was white-knuckled the whole time, not that there's much choice mind. It's either that or get spat off the back like a tiddlywink. Simple.
I shared this pogo-like journey with about twenty or so Lao and their luggage (this is typically three huge canvas bags full of the unimaginable, a tightly packed basket of squealing chickens and/or the occasional bright-eyed toddler wrapped up and pinned tightly to a familiar bosom.) My role in all this was to make it to the other side alive, with my back intact. For the others I was simply 'the crazy falang who hung off the back' providing them with a great source of amusement as the sun beat down on my delicate foreign flesh and the thick plumes of dust and fumes hoovered their way into every pore of my being. Seriously, the journey was insane and one that could not have been avoided. It was the only way in or out.
I mentioned in the last entry how I spent my last night in Luang Prabang sitting outside the guest house with drunken Paul watching the family cat lick its balls. Well it was actually through him (or rather his lovely Lao lady) that I got to experience this magic-roundabout of a situation.
Paul's a Yorkshireman, in his mid-fifties and whether he'll ever realise it or not is completely reliant on alcohol to get through a single waking day. He's just got engaged to a local Lao girl named 'Porn' - my age, attractive, intelligent, unmistakedly independent and whole-heartedly devoted to fulfilling her part in the ever-complex web of Asian/falang relationships. Paul's actually a harmless old soul, with plenty of stories to tell (some real belters I might add) as well as being the apple in the eye of young Porn. Over the last couple of weeks in Luang Prabang we've met up often, resulting in - I guess - a kinship that warranted the invitation to go with them to Porn's village and stay with her family for a few days. You already know my response.
The village of Sop Chaek is way out in the sticks in an area where outsiders like me are more or less unheard of. Understandably, Paul and myself (the falang) had to be accounted for, and so we were 'signed-in' by the village elder in conjunction with the police, through an official looking stamped and signed hard copy that required a customary 'protection fee' of 20,000 kip.
No sooner had we arrived than our presence was known. By all. Hardly surprising really. Within minutes we had ourselves a private audience of mesmerised onlookers. The adults, who sat in a line along a suspended tree branch (the family 'bench') looked on with polite caution as we went about our standard business of simply hanging around - like you do in these situations.
The kids (and animals) by this time had already starting gathering round tentatively, the majority of them standing, sitting or hanging while others blended into the shadows. The entertainment that came from showing two wheezy family members how to use an inhaler was absolutely magic, and so it didn't take long for the banter to start flowing. Once everyone was in full swing the nail trick came out. Never does it fail!
All I had was a four day window - to sit and be, to take part, to immerse myself humbly, or to simply function as an ornamental temporary fixture in their fascinating world.
Oh where to start. No running water, no electricity, no real income, no gas, no kitchen, no shops, no doctor, no medical facilities and no real connection with the outside world apart from the irregular transit to and from the city. So how do they survive? Surprisingly easy. Aside from standard village practice, there are a few in the Sop Chaek fraternity who take occasional trips over to Luang Prabang to trade their wares, capitalise on naive passing falang or procure whatever supplies necessary for their family upkeep.
On the day of departure, we stopped en-route to buy a load of supplies. Paul stayed in the tuk-tuk while Porn and I creamed the market for fresh buffalo meat, mak kaen, pak sum, pak beung, medicines, toiletries and anything else that would ensure a welcome surprise. It did, and with our audience gawping on we got stuck in to preparing a mighty stew of buffalo offal, pak sum, freshly pounded jeow and a platter of fiery marinated (and very tender) buffalo flesh. In their minds, there was no way a stupid falang like me - especially one with such a ridiculous amount of unkempt facial hair and exciteable mannerisms - could possibly know the first thing about cooking, so it was only natural that I excused myself for a second, grabbed the wok, stoked the fire a bit to get a good belching roar and got my hands and face dirty. The meat was to die for. If only Bera could've been there. (Mate, all I can say is... I'll burp it over to you one day.)
One of the days saw us bouncing along twenty or thirty kilometres of timeless landscape by motorbike, to a village called Pak Xeng, where we were glared at like aliens, ate spontaneously in family frontages (and got treated like royalty) and where I got overwhelmed by the hordes of kids who materialised out of every doorway, field and corner when I decided to take off on foot alone. Paul stayed back in an old roadhouse draped in his sanctuary of beer and cheap cigarettes.
On the way back we traded a few sheets of kip for half a dead snake from some randoms at the side of the road. Back at the ranch we slapped it on the table in front of 'mama Porn'. She was delighted. Porn started hacking at it with a machete while I got the cooking liquor up to par. This came in the form of a fiery tom yam creation with star fruit (we had no tamarind) kaffir, galangal and heaps of freshly pounded chilli. I can't say I've had snake before, certainly not one as bright and beautiful as this little monster, but wow.. well impressed. Serpent soup. Texture wise I'd put it half way between chicken and fish, but the skin's a whole different story. Once cooked it toughens up like a thick piece of Michelin. That said, the stock left from sitting a pot of snake flesh over a small bamboo fire is to die for. What an experience. What an experience.
There is far too much in the way of everyday Lao life - everyday rural life - that could possibly be accounted for in this simple journal. There are far too many subtleties and tiny observations, too many intricacies and incidents - all of which amazed me and warmed me to the core - that could possibly be described on these pages. I couldn't even begin to try and voice the value or meaning that encapsulates the lives of these people, who live so primitively and so simply. We have got such a lot to learn. The thoughts that have spawned as a result of my time here have gone deep, which is why I have to hold my comments and leave it there for now. It'll come out later, once it's all gone through the thought mill..
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Where I stayed