June 22, 2015

Short stories from Laos : I'm all over the place



After a few hours of strenuous walk we get to the akha village. We settle in a small house and people start approaching us slowly, curiosity gleaming in their eyes. As always children are the most daring and soon three littles girls are playing hide and seek with me over a fence. I get out my notebook, start to draw pictures on it : I point to a picture, say the name in english, and they give me the name in their language. Later, we teach them a nursery rhyme, a game of clapping hands that all kids know in our country – and it takes them about five minutes not only to remember the rhythm, but also the words, that they sing without knowing what they mean. And I watch them, gaping, amazed at their ability to soak up the silly sounds that the foreigners just filled their world with.

*

That night we eat with one of the village families. The children gather around us. They point at their talisman necklace and say : « Lomiah », and I point at my necklace and repeat the word, because mine is a talisman too, and in this moment we are the same. We dine on rice cooked in leaves, boiled pumpkin and cabbage, and our host never lets our rice wine glass be empty. I wake up before the others and take advantage of the dawn and the village still asleep to snap a few pictures. Across our house is another, and a woman is out in her yard, plucking a bird. She's one of the most striking being I've ever seen, with her black cotton dress sewn with colorful embroidery, and heavy silver rings adorning her ears and her hair. Shyly, I come closer, and when she notices me, I say in my awful lao : « Can I please take a picture ? » «  She smiles and gestures me inside her house, where she shows me pictures of her family. I snap her portrait and promise to send it to her. Then we both sit in the dirt of the yard, I help her gut the bird, and she talks and talks endlessly. It doesn't matter that I don't understand a word. This is community. This is a dialog. This is the moment the world doesn't expect – us, different in appearance, culture, and language, born on different corners of the planet, meeting. This is magic.

**

One morning, we decide to leave Phongsaly and get back to Muang Khua via the river. It's one of these days when the fog doesn't want to lift, and it's one of these days where everything goes wrong. We miss the shuttle to the bus station, so we run up the hill, and catch our bus. The road is terrible. Then there is a truck fallen on the side, in the middle of the road, so we can't continue. We ask the locals how far is the village, how far is the river, they tell us a mile, so we start running to catch the boat, still carrying our bags. We run down for what is definitely at least two miles, arrive at the river, the boat is there. The boat takes us to one of the huge dam the chinese are building on the Nam Ou. There we have to come ashore, cross the dam, and wait for another boat. We wait three hours. The men working on the dam – all from Mongolia – come talk to us with great excitement and curiosity – they don't have a lot of opportunities to socialize. They show us videos of their homes, of Ulan Bator, and they explain they can't go home, not enough money. They look so sad and so lonely. And it occurs to me that I am standing as deep in the world as I can get – at the crossroads of influences and economic movements – only this is the real side of it. The human side of it. Men exploited to build a dam that will force thousands of other men to move from their ancestral homes. The rest of the boat ride, we stay silent.

***

New province, new trek. I spent a month in Laos taking a bus every two days, moving all the time. My thoughts seems to follow the movement and lately I find it hard to focus, even hard to follow a conversation. These days, I'm all over the place. North of Muang Sing, where the golden triangle of the opium trade used to be, I visit the Hmongs and the Daos. They tie white treads of cotton around my wrists. A young boy in the village speaks a little english, so I leave with him to see the jungle. As we walk, I sing to the magnificent trees towering over us, remnants of the oldest primary forest in the world. The young boy, who believes that trees are gods, tells me : "They listen". And as the song dies in my throat, I close my eyes and I twirl in the middle of this jungle, feeling the mist rising around me.

« I know. »


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