"China 2010" story # 24

Huaitong, Laos           September 18, 2010

After my run-in with the law, I began staying in a very friendly guesthouse. Backpackers Hostel. And I began a long wait to begin my teaching assignment in Luang Prabang.
     Some days, a hostel worker named Deuan invited me to have dinner in his home. Since I was struggling to reduce my food expenditures, and bored, and hungry as always, I went.
     We walked to the outer edge of town, past fat women selling fried breadpuffs, past the nicely-painted shacks where universities hold class. The hot sun hit Deuan's face and hair, brown and black, the colors of a snake living in the tropics.
     An innocent student, he told me the tall girl who'd grabbed and led him into the hostel kitchen was his new girlfriend, but that he'd still never made the time to go visit her. What are you waiting for, Deuan!? With his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his short bangs carefully spiked, he said he planned to become rich.
     Nowadays, he lived with three other students in an eight-foot square room. They paid $185 a year for it, total. Deuan complained that that was a lot. The room opened up to a dirt courtyard, where they and their neighbors stood around without much to do. I liked it here. To bathe, everyone wore a towel and walked down to a communal tub, where he or she scooped water onto his self. Apparently, they often drank a lot in the evenings here.
     One of Deuan's roommates was a studious girl, wearing a traditional Lao skirt: long and slightly tight for walking and black, with decorated gray trim on the bottom. I really like those skirts. And I like the girls who wear them; girls who wear little make-up except for ponytail holders, and flat sandals, who agree with me that life isn't about trying to impress others.
     The first time I visited Deuan, this girl cooked a soup for us that had blocks of pumpkin, and tough buffalo meat, in it. Good. The second time, her soup had a very bitter kind of eggplant in it, instead of pumpkin. Yukk!
     And, of course, the soups were accompanied by sticky rice. One whole corner of the room was big bags of sticky rice, which the students' parents had sent with them. And other than the clothes hanging overhead, and the small stove and blankets, the room was empty.

The innocent smile of Deuan, along with the sagging Buddha face of another hostel employee, smiled at me, as monument-shaped mountains of jungle floated past in the background. We rode in the back of a truck, on a dirt road. This was Sunday morning, and our hostel's owner was taking us to the village.
     There, a dozen men were building a hut for him. These villagers had free time before their wet, rice grass would need harvesting. They had muddy Mekong skin, small and healthy bodies, and happy natures.
     They built without planning. Although they had a tape measure, they often took measurements using the rungs of a bamboo stick.
     The hut was to be built in the jungle. The villagers had made some level ground, then dug six holes in a rectangle. I and a German traveler helped them by carrying wood down on a slippery, mud path.
     We hoisted fifteen-foot redwood beams into the holes. We nailed boards onto them, slanting diagonally to the ground, as braces. People climbed up and stood on these beams, swaying in the air as the beams shifted. They connected the tops of the beams with boards, at what would be ceiling level, then filled in the holes with dirt.
     At three feet off the ground, grooves had been carved into the redwood. These grooves were now connected by boards to one another, at what would be floor level. (I'm not sure if the floor was off the ground to avoid the heat or to avoid the mud.) People began nailing the floor board beams across the future hut.
     At this point, Deuan did some work with his head eightteen feet off the ground; many men sat and just watched; and a smily guy with whiskey was playing - what the German called - the ever-present role of the guy trying to get other people to drink. We were hungry. Especially me. Luckily, some women had come and were busy pounding food in a bowl and holding pans over a fire. Lunch-time!
     Half of us climbed into a tiny hut; half ate outside. Sitting on the ground, we grabbed from dozens of bowls ...
     spicy papaya salad - made from green, unripened papaya, shredded like lettuce, that nipped our tender throats;
     sticky rice, which we could dip in one of two mashed-up "laaps";
     laap made from raw, water buffalo meat, with onions, green leeks, chili peppers, and fish oil;
     cooked buffalo laap, which reminded me of Western ground beef;
     buffalo blood, with leeks and chewy pieces of buffalo inside;
     and betel tree leaves, like poplar leaves, which we could wrap around our sticky rice and laap and eat.
     Wow! The meal was "sap hlaai" (very delicious)!
     During lunch, a soaking rain swept in over the hills. Those eating outside had to put big taroe leaves on their heads to deflect the rain away. We all had a good laugh about that.
     After lunch, the German and I spent some time in the village. The village seemed overrun with kids, none more than twelve years old. Naked babies ran out-of-control. But, then again, who would want to control a naked baby?
     And when the dark rain came bricking down, the kids had nothing better to do than to wait against a thatched home and roof. Behind them, a clear river washed powerfully down from the hills, to the massive tree trunk of a rainforest giant, where it formed a calm pool for villagers to bathe in. What a great place to be a kid.
     Meanwhile, in the jungle, the men finished - what the German, who'd worked in construction, called - an amazingly productive day of building.
     The hostel owner, named "Suanpuu" (meaning: top of the mountain), told us the villagers didn't want any money for their work. They just wanted to eat and drink well.
     We sat and ate very well, in a village home, that evening. We ate ...
     a salad made of watercrest (a tree-shaped grass that grows in mountain streams), with tomato, egg, crushed peanuts, and something like mayonnaise;
     chili peppers we could put in our betel tree leaves;
     minty, lemony leaves of grass to chew on;
     raw fish laap, gray-colored, with a runny texture, "sap hlaai";
     squishy bamboo in a soup, flavored with the fish's spiky body parts.
     As we two dozen villagers ate on the floor, different men took turns being "the guy trying to get other people drunk".
     Thirty-year-old Suanpuu (a.k.a. Shampoo) told of his plan to build a campsite in the jungle. He, a rarely ambitious Lao person, loved business. And his business motto seemed to be: "Gently help tourists - and drink and smoke pot, afterwards." He hoped building a campsite near this village would help its economy. But, in contrast, another businessman owned a resort nearby and was in the process of having this village moved, because he said it polluted his water.
     Shampoo's bear-like face smiled to see Ferdinand the German and me enjoying ourselves.
     I turned to Ferdinand. "What do you think happens when we die?" His small head and well-groomed beard answered that he believes there will be nothing.
     He said he finds this thought calming. I was pleased it calmed him. But, I wondered aloud, would it still calm him when he was old and near death? And, what kind of person would such a belief make him into? One of Dostoyevsky's Karamazov brothers remarked, "If there's no afterlife, then (in life) everything's allowed!" Luckily, in the case of calm Ferdinand - whose older parents don't understand him - he seems to just be searching for family.
     My thoughts turned to the spirituality of Laos. Buddhism. Multiple gods.
     I considered the country's jungly terrain. Shampoo would be continually "fighting the jungle" if he wanted to maintain an open space in it. And I found the jungle to be impossible to walk in; during a recent adventure, my sandal got stuck in the mud and broke, almost immediately; I soon gave up trekking and just slept by a nearby river.
     It's tough to control one's fate, in the jungle. Maybe that's why Lao people believe in multiple gods. It would be tough to imagine that one being could control everything. And maybe that's why Lao people aren't as ambitious as Westerners - content to just live and eat in their little niches in the jungle.
     Small Shampoo, however, loves to hike and sleep alone in the jungle. He walks barefoot. He pushes plants out of his way with a bamboo stick, so he won't step on a snake or scorpion. He builds fires. He sleeps in a hammock.
     Cool. But, I don't feel like I can do that here yet. I'm just happy to eat.
     Late in the evening, we drove back to Luang Prabang. In the back of the truck, amid the darkness, I meditated. It was great to feel trees hanging over the road like tidal wave claws. Or, to feel trees whose long stalks towered over their neighbors, and the night.

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