Saturday, July 17, 2010

River Eel, The Village Chief, and a few rounds of Petanque

We set off early on Saturday morning. Three volunteers who had been here a while, one new arrival, two teachers, the Xayadeth Director, his wife, three kids and a cousin. I said hello, "Sabaidee" to his two year old daughter and she almost winced, but turned away and ran to her mom. In true Lao fashion somehow twelve people fit comfortably in an eight-person van. We didn't really know what to expect. We had only been here for two weeks, yet we decided to accept the great honor of being invited to stay the weekend with the Director's family 120km north of Luang Prabang.
We told stories and made up nicknames for one another the first hour. Being a fairly large American of German decent, the moniker for me that caused the greatest Lao grins was "Tui Kin Laai Meuay Laai", the fat one who eats a lot and is always tired. It proved useful through the weekend in our attempts to keep up with the Lao quick witted humor. We pulled the car to the side of the road for a break about half way to Numboc; taking pictures and picking foliage that would later become part of lunch, the breathtaking views spoke of a serene and perfect life that the Lao people hold very dear.
Arriving at Phone Saat the village seemed all but one road. A composite description was, "we have had power for six years and hopefully within the next two years we will have water...a village of 217 houses that are all the same size, except the ones that are different". If someone asked me to describe it differently than the locals did I think I would say, "they may not know flat screen TVs, video games, or what a latte tastes like; but the Lao surely don't know despair or angst, for somehow everything they need comes from family and their willingness to share the last handful of sticky rice with a perfect stranger".
It was time for "Tui" to have lunch. We were all greeted with the warmest of smiles, head nods, and Sabaidee's. All of us from GVI were sitting around the table with the teachers from Xayadeth, yet the six people who lived in the house were sitting on the ground to make our stay more comfortable. After a few shots of "three year old garlic water that's good for the heart", we slurped down raw river eel salad and handfuls of sticky rice. We laughed, sweat, and chatted away most of the afternoon before heading of to see the "cave".
We packed back in the van and drove for a few minutes to stop for pictures. Just before heading off again we decided on a toilet break. I walked back through the swollen mud and bamboo houses to a public toilet. The door was wide open and the cost of using the toilet was a ten minute conversation with a nice old man who was showering in the toilet. He turned out to be in charge of tourism in the province, and was showering because he wanted to look nice while he personally took us out to see the cave.

The cave was a solemn experience. We were told how the Lao government lived almost twelve years in the cave during the war to protect themselves from American bombs. We were all a little humbled by the size of the cave's presidential quarters. Despite surely living through the war, our guide answered our questions and did not say a single sore word about anything.
That night we feasted again on known and unknown local delicacies and prepared for a "walk" around town. The "walk" lead us to the central village gathering place where loud music, flowing beer, and locals were singing and dancing to a full moon. On short notice two volunteers were dancing with the village chief, two of us were attempting to sing a made up song to the entire town, and the Xayadeth director was showing off his dancing and social skills. I think "Tui" lost ten pounds that night just dancing.
After a short night of sleep in a room full of mosquito nets, we headed off in the morning to Luang Prabang. We stopped about twenty minutes outside of town to feast yet again and play Petanque (Yard Bowling). Petanque is where men become men in this country. A simple game only played amongst friends, we were all now part of the family. We briefly tried to demonstrate how to hypnotize a chicken, but our attempts were not in vain. All of our new friends really enjoyed us trying to make a chicken stand still. My excuse was that it likely does not work on Lao chickens, only American chickens. Of course our quick witted friends said it likely does not work on American chickens either.
A beautiful temple that overlooks the city was our last sojourn. We laughed and chatted about the weekend, spotted the guesthouse, and discussed how beautiful Laos was. About five minutes before we returned to the car to go home, the director handed me his youngest child. She came right over and let me hold her high above the ground. A day before she had not even let me say hello. Now and forever we will be friends.