Monday, November 21, 2011

Afoot in Laos

January 2010

...set off for a five day trek. The van left Luang Prabang, winding higher and higher into the hills. We got out in a Khmu village, where a boy of about three was playing with a large knife. We had lunch on a tree stump on the far side of the village, the floor of the jungle around us littered with dry leaves. Local people had a way of just popping out of the trees. Nearby, a couple of men were in the middle of a transaction over a water buffalo. The going rate was $500.

The path formed one section of a dike around rice fields, now brown and out of season. We crossed streams over stones, dodged large piles of scat, and scrambled over fences built to keep the buffalo out. One animal stared us down as we passed, protecting her baby which hid itself in the shrubs by the stream. Further downstream, we stepped over the crushed body of a centipede huge and nearly a foot long. Our guide Liu told us that its bite was deadlier than a cobra, bringing death in less than half an hour, unless the victim takes in opium, which will counteract the venom. Beyond this was a tall tree stump that held an egg, a few flowers, and some rice. Spirit shrine for the mountain beyond.

Above us to our right was the new road, a mere scar cut into the ridge. Some kids were sliding down the dirt slope. Spotting us, they cut across the fields to intercept. They were all pre-teen, doing their daily 90 minute commute home from school. In the morning, they leave at 5 a.m. We became a makeshift schoolbus as they followed us the rest of the way to their village singing a song, each kid taking a different verse.

The village was a mix of Lao Loum, Khmu, and Hmong. There was some sort of party going on in one of the houses. This being dry season, there was more time to play. Our appearance shifted the attention our way. We sat beneath the chief's house 'talking' to his wife and a dozen kids who'd surrounded her. One of the kids was a girl who'd followed us, who Miki and I agreed was a great beauty. She also had a certain obvious sweetness and intelligence, but what really endeared her to us was the fact that she'd done the long school commute without shoes.

We left town, along the road now, with a different set of kids in tow. They left us when the pitch became steep. The road was built in the past six months, but sections were already crumbling down the hillside. Near the top, we found some women who were lugging large branches back to their village. (Earlier, we'd seen kids as young as 5 doing the same.) This village was where we'd spend the night.

It was actually two villages; the Hmong scattered along the hilltop, and the Khmu homes just below it, built in two parallel rows bisected by a single road. We paid a visit to the chief, in whose shack we'd be staying the night. He brought us tea, which I sipped while watching his one year old grandson bathe from a spigot. He was perpetually naked and had a bell around his neck. Pigs, dogs, and chickens ran around him in the yard. The chief caught one of the latter, took it to the kitchen, and slit its throat. His son held a bowl for the blood to spill into. We'd eat its flesh for dinner. I thought about my stance on killing, how I usually insist that nothing be killed specifically for my personal consumption. I think now about how weak this is, that buying any kind of meat is always second-hand complicity in that animal's murder.

As I was thinking this, I'd been hearing a sort of gamelan, and closer inspection revealed that it was coming from the shaman's house. He was chanting in front of the spirit altar, shaking a rattle and stamping his feet, hoping to bring a cure to a sick girl in the village. Liu told us that he'd carry on like this for two hours or more, neither tiring nor stopping for food or drink.

We walked the dusty road between the Khmu homes. The huts were set back aways, with small garbage baskets sitting at the roadside like mailboxes. Unlike the Hmong and their smokey kitchens, families here had built fires out front. A group of kids were running around and jumping over shrubs and sleeping dogs. We stopped to buy some kind of sweet rice snack at the village's lone shop, and here a woman asked us to look at her sick toddler. It had gotten spots a few days before and the mother wondered if we had any medicine. The child didn't seem bothered at all, neither itchy nor in pain. I assumed it was some kind of allergy, though couldn't say for certain. Our first aid kit wasn't with us anyway. But this experience made me feel some guilt and helplessness, and solidified the fact that Westerners are seen as some kind of reverse witch doctors, bringing aid from distant realms.

We walked back below the ring of mountains fading in the light. The village had no electricity except for a single bulb hanging behind the chief's house. We sat below it, eating soup and eating the chicken that had been running in the yard an hour before. Afterward, Liu talked about the origins of the Hmong, which he'd then translate to the chief. It was interesting to see Liu's bird's eye view, having removed himself from village life to the city. The chief and his son hung on his every word, the oral tradition at work. It's amazing how well people listen if they aren't spoiled by TV. They did compromise on radio. (I'd often seen people carrying what I'd though were transistor radios in their pockets. They turned out to be cell phones with music downloads.) We listened to a Hmong radio program, a woman's a capella voice singing forlornly across mountains, valleys, and borders. When it was over, devoid of further distractions, everyone turned in by eight. I read for another hour before following. As I read, two teen girls watched me, squatting just out of sight in the darkness. (They'd watch me again as I bathed by the spigot in the morning.) And the shaman continued his chants well into the night...

...I awoke to voices and chickens. People were busy in the pre-dawn hour. We took a walk in the mist, watching kids trying to goad their chickens into a fight. They tie their bird to a string, then throw it at another bird that is just going about its business. I only saw two fights, both ending with one of the parties retreating within seconds.

At breakfast, the chief hurled stones at a pig that had bullied his own piglet away from its sop. The piglet was sleeping nearby amidst a pile of rubbish. I really liked the chief, always smiling and happy. He'd been elected just after the communists took over in '75, and had moved the village from the deeper mountains three years ago. Based on this latter info, I wondered if he'd been one of insurgents who'd terrorized the high roads for decades.

We left the village up a narrow dusty path, as the mist burned off to reveal beautiful peaks. Closer in, rice fields surrounded small huts used for rest, naps, or the occasional overnight. The road led to a Lao Loum village at the edge of the Nam Ou. We sat awhile on its bank waiting for a boat to take us up river. Below us, a boy removed water from his flooded pirogue, then set out fishing. Our own boat eventually turned up, and we rode through a glorious day, the sun on our faces, cooled by the spray.

Muang Ngoi eventually welled up on the Western bank. Fishermen and kids did their thing below the long concrete steps which we ascended to out guest house. We got a bungalow overhanging the river, with a hammock to serve as metronome for a lazy day.

The village was a single dirt lane lined with small shops. It was only about 500m long, with a wat at either end. We had lunch in a small restaurant/shop midway, where the cooking took ages. As we waited for our food, who should turn up but Ian from Dreamland. He'd had a nice day as a mahout and had arrived here after a couple of days on the river.

After lunch, we walked out of town behind an old monk sheltering from the hot sun beneath an umbrella. Liu followed suit, pulling from a tree a leaf about a meter in circumference and holding it over himself. Further along, a girl in a tree dropped tamarinds to us. Later, ducking under a low branch of bamboo, I came up too quickly and smacked my head on the next. Liu warned me about a small venomous snake that lives in bamboo. It usually minds its own business unless disturbed in the manner I'd just demonstrated.

The trail led to a wide-mouthed cave, little more than a single room. There was a pool just deep enough for wading, which deepened toward the darker, rockier back. A tourist had once slipped and died here. Looking back toward the cave mouth, the light spilling in tinted green, the sun backlighting the jungle just outside. In front was a stream that flowed from the cave next door.
Large fish, some a foot long, swam in and out of the shadows. This stream met another under the shade of a large tree overhanging the water. An Asian tourist sat in one of the branches, pondering something important. Nearby, a village girl swam naked, her mother squatting on the bank, eating taro.

Back in town, I spent the rest of the day in my hammock, watching the water moving between immobile mountains. Boats came in and out, some poled, some powered. On the opposite bank, a herd of cows were moving in one direction, a herd of buffalo in the other. Where they met, they mingled and began to graze. I liked this. Small pigs ran around and stopped, ran around and stopped.

At six, the electricity came on, so we went to eat. Afterwards I wrote, until the 10pm electricity curfew left me in mid-sentence. I went back outside to watch the stars awhile, brilliant in their full voice...

On the turntable: The Cure, "Wish"
On the nighttable: Douglas Preston, "Cities of Gold"