Friday, November 21, 2008

The Whole Point.

"Time to schoo" popped out of a gentle knock on my bedroom door. Morning feet quickly shuffled away toward other duties in the house or field. I rolled on my elbows, and turned over in my sheets. I was already laughing. A mom, in a primordial Lao village, just told me to get out of bed or I'll be late for school. I had to slap myself and check for a Bon Jovi ceiling poster.

All night long, we'd taped, and we'd folded. We'd stuffed and we'd rationed. We'd get wound up and we'd imagine their faces. And their questions, and their confusion, and their playing, and their bewilderment at pink and silvery construction paper.

This morning we're driving a mile or so deeper down the same dirt road Mae Tao's house sits on. Justin's parents are getting dressed up, and the early sunshine feels brilliant. I can hear downstairs that Old-Man-Cousin has arrived in his snappy blue checked shirt. He is our ambassador today, and will introduce us to Ban Mouange Elementary School's principal.

On site it's dirt floors, brick and bamboo re-enforcements, a few long tables. We meet the teachers, and they're gracious. I unload medical supplies I'd bought at Target. Ice packs, band aids, Neosporin, anything first aid, and left it in the office. After some bows and Sabai Dees (hellos), it was now time to hand deliver 340 presents for absolutely no reason.

Each packet contained 2 colored pencils, some stickers, maybe a toothbrush and floss, a coloring book page, 2 crayons, and whatever we could fit inside.
There were 8 rooms. This is what it looked like:


and this too

Classroom after classroom this beautiful exchange happened, I Sabai Dee'd to every little voice, and in turn I absorbed every little prayer. This was pure joy and I was delirious.

The last room, a separate building connected to the "Library", held the preschoolers. When we walked in they gave us the best mini-chirped Sabai Dee in perfect unison. We handed them each new colored pencils, and a big batch of watercolor paints (THANK YOU GINA RAY).
We saw some of their drawings on the teachers desk while her baby napped quietly in the hammock attached to the wall. Their ability to interpret lizards, birds, and animals is levels beyond their age.

Having taken pictures, waived goodbye and thanked all of the students for letting us visit, we walked the front field to the road with titanium in our chests. How thrilling it was to be in the presence of spirits so strong. As we got in the truck, and tried to make a the U turn around ditches, Justin caught this shot of a young boy. And it tempered everything.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


My first night sleeping in Ban Namouang village.
Wood owls, jumbo crickets, and every specie of inflatable throat go to work on the nocturnal orchestra outside my sill.

On them, I will deploy my tour remedy of ear plugs, bandana blindfold (to which Jon Rauhouse always says the next day, “well goodmoooorning, Axl”) and the proper roofie dose of emergency Ativan.
I strap on a headlamp, read a chapter set in 1927 about a woman who walks to Siberia, and try not to think about what is going to skid across my back when I’m passed out. Even through foam plugs and eye bandits, I can hear long-plumed roosters out back booting everyone off their sound stage.

Morning is tapping on the shutters.

I am refreshed and alive. I open the door, step on the patterned contact paper floor, and prepare myself for the bustling foreign household downstairs, already 6 hours awake. On the wall by the stairs is a circuit box, jammed with dated electrical sockets and field switches. Extension cords are rigged to different rooms and a fan. The house phone is on a short cord left unplugged until used. Looking at the chunky, tan, plastic receiver, I want to call my mom and let family know I’m alright. We enter the 15 digit phone card code, but there’s no answer in Jersey. Oh well.
I turn back to my bedroom, grab sunscreen, and out of nowhere Justin slams my door with me inside.

He is panic yelling in Lao, and I can hear in his voice that it’s bad.
"Mae Tao! Mae Tao! Phut Phut!" He’s calling for someone. Anyone. No one is coming. Inside I’m thinking how fucked I am behind this door. Is it a rabid monkey? They were out of rabies shots at the Polyclinic and now here it is. I’m going down. Thanks Dr. Sherman.
I hear Phut run upstairs and she screams, Ay!. Then hard banging.

Justin and I have braved some things in the past week, and as he opens the door, we can read on each others faces that:
A) that was fucked, and B) I am taking a bottle of Ativan tonight.
He just said, you don’t want to know, laughing. I said I did. He said it was a centipede. Phut smashed it’s head “area” 3 times with a full hairspray can before it caved.

Nong Noy tried to cheer us up said it was good luck, and that it’s hell-bite only hurts until you die. Justin’s mom, who was born working on this land, looks mortified, and hugs me so close we're wearing the same pants. Apologizing for bad bad nature, she says "it first one that big ever come inside promise". She is constantly and hilairously declaring her horror of everything that moves, and hates it here “in this bar-be-que pit”. She’s got a twig still lodged in her foot from 1973 as a pregnant refugee with a 3 year old. She scaled shear cliffs for days to escape a rifle at her neck.
I’ve got some Deet from Fred Meyer. And I will hose myself in it.

Time to drive to Pakse. It’s roughly 9 AM. We all head outside to the truck. Boukher is driving, Justin up front. Back seat is Sivilay’s silent older brother, Kham On (“you remember easy! Like, Come on!”), Sivilay on the hump, then me.

Enter the awesome nieces.
They are impeccably dressed, except each has a towel draped on her head as a parasol is shared. Like it’s a first class cabin, they climb in the open truck bed, backs lined up against the rear window. I cannot believe these broads are going to sit back there for an hour and a half, through dirt craters, locusts, beating sun, buffalo breaks, and 50 mph winds. Not only are they are psyched to go to town, but they can skin a chicken one handed in a monsoon while delivering a baby and then raising it to be extraordinary.

I am a jerk.

The road out of the village is treacherous, and I am the only passenger turning around every ten seconds to make sure the girls didn’t fly out. Through the safety glass, I see them casually laughing. Totally autonomous of the inner cab.
Sivilay is pressing her nails into my hand that we are going to "clash", in the best, broken English.

First thing I notice driving into Pakse, it’s slightly larger than Savannahket, but with more of an air of Vientiane. Pakse had a Prince, and his stunning turn of the century gold trimmed castle is now a budding tourist hotel for the Japanese.
This is a working city, with kids, and restaurants, and construction. Bouhker parks across from a large market. Justin and I hop out and head for an internet cafe while the others eat. When we return, Phut and Ou are in salon chairs getting their hair done. I am happy to see them enjoying themselves. They smile and shoo us like, “don’t look yet!”. We leave them to their styling, and Nong Noy helps us shop. She can score deals we can’t. They see me coming and prices go way up. Now, with my broker, I immediately buy Mae Tao and Mae Kham each a new dress.

Next up, cellophane gift bags.

See, yesterday, an old man cousin of Mae Tao’s walked to the village elementary school on our behalf. He told the teachers that American friends would like to visit with greetings.
Bag wise, we had about enough for 150 kids.
Cousin returns and says they are very excited we are coming. All 340 “little souls”.


We look everywhere in this market but can’t find any bags, which is ridiculous, since EVERYTHING here is wrapped in a cellophane bag. We change course and decide to buy rolls of paper, more colored pencils, staplers and more tape. We’ll hand make the bags tonight ourselves.

Late afternoon we load in and leave for home, but make a surprise stop at a market on the edge of Rte 13. It looks hardcore local. Sivilay says I shouldn’t go in. It’s down a dirt alley with tarps covering the entrance. Justin looks at me, I ask her why she’s saying I shouldn’t go. She said “it smelly”. We march in after Sivilay and the nieces. Everything is sold here. honey, vegetables, meat, rice, drink, plastics. The nieces split up and take it on like it’s Q.F.C.
I look like a skipping record or a bike reflector and try not to do anything dumb. There’s skinny cats, and kids picking their mom’s backs, and ladies tending to their vegetables and grocery scales. Eggs of every color, chilies, strange fruits with bumps and pineapple fins. We buy some basil and cucumber for baguette sandwiches later.
Sivilay was having a great time buying vegetables, she said, “take picture of me!” I happily do, and she points at it and goes, “I so skinny!” and laughs her head off. Again, I want to put her in my hall of fame.
After they steer me away from the meat department (think goat faces), we’re finally really going home. We make the turn from the paved road onto the village dirt one, go 4 wheeling, and no one flies out. The trip is a success.

When we pull in the driveway Mae Tao is waiting. I run and hug her like I’ve known her my whole life. I’m so happy to see her and can’t wait to give her and Mae Kham their dresses after dinner.

Justin and I realize we have a MAJOR arts and crafts session ahead of us, so we grab two huge Laobeers, the suitcase of supplies, and get to work.
We stuff each existing bag with 2 colored pencils, a crayon, a coloring book page, some dental floss, a tooth brush, stickers, erasers. Anything we can. Phut and Nong Noy walk up and start helping us. We are an assembly line. There’s more beers (only we drank) and we realize as we run out of bags, that we’re going to be at this all night. We start hand folding and taping bags out of colored construction paper. We HAVE to have enough.

Hours go by, there’s bugs all over us and the stuff. "here's a bag of beetles kid, bet you've never seen that before". We move into my room where it's less swarmy.
We're so fried, and cannot stop laughing or crinkling cellophane. Only until we had to pee did we realize that the entire house was asleep. Or at least faking it though our racket of goodwill.

My bedroom door sticks. Opening it is so, so, so, so loud. And poor Mae Tao is under a net on the floor right outside of it. We try hard to creep out and be quiet, but it's like Dumb and Dumber in a monastery.
My bladder is a full-on udder, and before I can say fuck, I am face to face with Paul Bunyon’s Ox. All 50 tons of him at the bottom of the stairs eating bushes and staring at me.
Justin's eyes were like dinner plates. He had to go get Mae Tao because we couldn’t die before our bags were done. Like a shot she was up, her hair down. She was in her night clothes, and ran the beast off without a seconds hesitation, back in bed before I had finished urinating on my flip flops again in the outhouse.

Finally, our gift bag count was 340. We did it! Not one little school nugget will go without tomorrow. We hope. Finishing our beers, we're exhausted and punch drunk. Justin says goodnight, cringing at the sound of my door in the silent house. I get in bed, put my headlamp on for a nice read, and then I have to pee again.

I remind myself to get bladder enlargement surgery when I return to The States.
Letting it rip in the gallon ziplock bag was actually very fun. I put it next to my bed with a towel over it. In the morning I will whistle doot dee doo, and head out to the tin john with my bag of wee wee, none the wiser.

If anyone hugs me and pops it, I’ll just say my water broke.

I can’t wait to be a role model.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good Things Mae Kham.

We said goodbye over and over to the students at Chanthone Technical College. Our bags already packed in the truck, we’re leaving Savannahket Province at the lunch bell. I get the feeling 3+ hours to Aunt Mae Tao’s (pronounced Mate-ow) village will be the most rustic yet. And nothing could have prepared me for it.

One very shy girl in the front row, hardly spoke either day, but tried.
Hands were popping up, they are not reserved like yesterday. Questions from all of them. Are you teaching tomorrow? Where are you going? What is the average temperature in the United States? Do you know the Lao word for flower? When are you coming back? Will you come back? Farewells are stretched, neither wanting to part. We took pictures, embraced, and finally, as they funneled outside in their make-shift uniforms, the shy girl stayed back.
She looked directly at me and said, “Teacher, you beautiful”. That’s when I lost it completely.
I hugged her until I thought she would break. This 18 year old girl lives somewhere so difficult it would be insulting to her, for me to even think I could comprehend it. She is the definition of Lao flower. And I want to take her home and show her what she can do. But I can’t even do it for myself, and it cuts me in half. Inside I’m embarrassed and ashamed for opportunities I’ve blown off in my life because I was stupid. I guess the only saving grace is that I’m learning.

We thanked the administrative staff for having us, took a portrait of each person, writing down their proper full name and position. My favorite was Sytha (chee-ta). He taught agriculture, spoke zero English, and his smile and laugh made us instant friends (see video). Justin will set up a blog/website for the school. We handed them some supplies brought from home (tape, pens, pencils, sharpeners, paper clips, notebooks), saving most of our big stash for the village elementary school. We have no “appointment” with those little dudes, but will find out how to say Sabai Dee (hello).

On Rte. 13 my mind was full, my soul was breathing, my own problems fit me.
I’m privileged to have done what we just did. And the challenge is not over. We have to somehow not forget this experience back in our real lives.
So far, Justin and I have been staying at bizarre hotels and guest spots built for communist dignitaries and prostitutes, both long dead. I am so nervous and thrilled to see where Justin’s Aunt lives. His mom, Sivilay (who lives in Olympia, WA, and whom I’ve never met), is waiting there too, and I could really use a mother’s arms. Through cell phone squawks, I can hear how excited they are that we’re coming, and it’s physically pulling us closer.

In my head I know there’s chickens, maybe some goats, and no plumbing. What does that mean? I don’t speak the language (I know “Hello”, “Thank You”, “My Name Is Rachel”), and I’m staying with a big extended family who want to catch up with each other. Will I be the weird exchange student that no one knows how to walk around? Am I finally Long Duck Dong? Will I be the one to get the biggest hospitality piece of tripe? I’m terrified of offending. Will I get sick? My malaria pills should keep me safe. I’ve never even been CAMPING for Christ sakes. I’m anxious to know what I can’t handle, and it’s probably showing on my face. All this is in my head though. Down in the back seat, I’m using 2 rolls of toilet paper as a pillow. 
Suddenly Justin says, as we pass the more dire slums of Khone Sedone, “We’re here, make a right”. I bolted up.

He and Bouhker started joking about rain, and how it’d better not, and about getting stuck last week, and rice machines, and I get nervous. What are you talking about? We start in and immediately use 4 wheel drive to it’s maximum. At one point we balance on 2 right wheels, leaning to the left as not to flip. The potholes on this dry dirt road are feet deep, I hold onto the handle above the back window with both hands, I’m flying off the bench. We’re going less than a mile an hour. It’s exciting and heart-pounding, it is the only way in or out to a “main road”. Villagers working, or walking, do a double take and stare at me through the window, as if I was an accident. I smile and wave like I’m insane.

Gold and green fields are being tended to by small groups of hunched over, triangular bamboo hatted people. Distant emerald hills draw a line in the sky. The people tie bundles of rice stalks, and cut the wheat-ish grass with a sickle. All by hand. For the most part, the rice in this country is all cut by hand. It goes into a blue, tractor/mixer/wood chipper looking thing. It spins the stalk as grain drops into a kind of reservoir. The stalks and excess dry plant shoot up in the air and then out through a vent, arching back down to the ground in an enormous hay pile. This could be the set of Apocalypse Now. Any Vietnam war movie, or view from a tropical helicopter you’ve ever switched off. It is the scene of humidity, of aching honor, and of a different way of life.
It is 1967 here, if it’s a day.

We start to reach a cluster of hand-built homes, all different materials. Laundry hangs on rails, giant plants take over in the most useful ways, framing everything exotically as it’s been for centuries. Children walking with purpose in the dust, riding old bikes and giggling past our truck. A whole day of chores and work ahead of them when they get home. They are so little.
We reach Mae Tao’s gate on the left, Justin hops out to move the double log barricade. There’s a cinderblock and wire fence along all sides of the property to keep large animals out. It’s picturesque. The house is cement and wood, 2 stories, tin roof. A green grass yard, cactus looking plants and orange flowers. Justin’s mom comes out as I leave the truck. She runs and hugs her son, and then hugs me tight like a daughter, out of her mind with joy that we’re finally here. I can see busy women peeking around from the back. A rooster is crowing. Clucking chickens run in circles. Water buffalo bow their heads to eat and wander the perimeter. Perfect golden sun sets over miles of brown grass, dotted with few canopy trees. It goes on forever, like I imagine The Serengeti would.

Mae Tao is Justin’s mom’s older sister. She speaks no English. We hug for a long, long time, and translate what each other desperately wants to say. I’m so happy to be here, welcome to my home. She’s got to be in her early sixties. Her face is lined with the sun and with experience. Her tiny little frame could lift a car. She is so powerful and kind. You can just tell.
I take my flips off and walk into the bottom half of the house. The walls are not fully attached to the ceiling, to let air in I guess. There is a long living room with some couches and a fan. A TV. Pictures of family. Keep walking toward the back and there’s a small refrigerator at the entrance to a large, open kitchen. All of the “cold” food preparation is done here, all meat cooking is done outside on 2 small hibachis (at varying heat).

I walk out back and there are 3 or 4 gorgeous, smiling women in their 30’s. Mae Tao’s 3 daughters, Phut (middle), Nouy (oldest) and Nang Noy (youngest). I bow and say Sabai Dee. I’m initiating the hugs and they are super warm right back, though of course shy. 2 little girls run away when they see me. Totally freaked out. I say Sabai Dee! I am constanly smiling, trying to put them at ease as much as they are trying to do the same. Mae Tao says, “Sorry her house not so nice”, I grab her and hug her tight and shake my head no, no, no. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Khawp Jai, Khawp Jai, Khawp Jai).

Before we arrived they spent the afternoon cooking, made piles of shredded cabbage, grilled chicken, cold noodles and sticky rice (only later would I find out they pulled out all the misshaped, browning rice grains so I would have all matching ones). This buffet is set out for Justin and I in the living room. They do not want us outside (that’s where everyone’s hanging out). They don’t want me to be in the kitchen, and I’m clinging to Justin a bit as he translates for me. He will be my talk box for the next several days, and he does an amazing job. Without him I would misread so much, and would have no clue how beyond beautiful my new hosts are, as well as every moment along the way.

I have to pee and experience the outhouse, a two room structure with corrugated tin doors. Left is for bathing, right is for toilet. I had to ask how. That’s how mixed up I feel. Justin told me to squat (thanks), feet on the grips, and then ladle in pots of water from the basin to flush it down. There’s a few rolls of tp in the corner on a bamboo rod, a billion tiny ants on the wall that I’m not afraid of, and some anti-bacterial gel. I immediately peed on my feet. How do they do this. What about periods? I have a billion questions.

Justin asks if I want to go visit the chickens. Yay! Mae Tao takes us on a walk behind the house to her coop. She loves her animals so much and seems to be telepathic with them. A huge pig lumbers along, as do water buffalo. Mae Tao held my hand on the walk, always wanting to touch me, make sure I’m ok. I’m so thankful for her. I motion my hand to the bucket of rice she’s carrying so I can help feed. She smiles that I’m not afraid. I am throwing rice at her buddies. I asked if the chickens were getting married. That one went over some heads. Then she picked a black one up like a ninja, lovingly chokes it into a hold, and she pets it to show me how. I pet it too. They love her.

When we walk back she holds my hand again. The nieces and some cousins have gathered, sitting out on the big bench back behind the kitchen. I decide to ambush them with jokes. I walk over, start saying “hi” a hundred times, laughing, and try to break ice in 100 degree heat. Justin translates for me, and I introduce myself to each person. We are all hysterical. They teach me hot “han”, rooster “Gai Poo”, hen, “Gai Mae”. We go slow and they are surprised at how eager I am and it relaxes us. I’m working hard to look like I’ve done this a million times and it’s exhausting me. Justin says they like me and I’m relieved. The girls will come into town with us tomorrow (the city of Pakse) to do some market shopping, emailing, and eating. They rarely get to go.

Now, a tiny old lady with short hair walked through the yard. Quiet as a tortoise, towel on her shoulder, she sat down next to me on the bench. She smiled this cute, genuine grin of shiny black teeth. I said “Sabai Dee!” and bowed. She returned the gesture. I hugged her sweetly, she was so fragile, maybe 90 lbs, and she leaned into me with love. No idea who I am. This is Mae Kham, Mae Tao and Sivilay’s oldest sister who lives down the road. She looks like she’s a thousand. She’s an excellent little hugger.
There are bugs and beetles and mosquitos flying into lights everywhere, but I have screens on the window in my room upstairs, and on the door. The only in the house. I head downstairs with my glasses and pjs on to join all the ladies. They watch the Thai soaps at 8 (no one’s really up past 9, they are up at 5 to clean, cook, etc). I just sit right in the pile of family like I’d been doing this my whole life.

Then, they see my legs.

So, you don’t really get a lot of Whiteys in the village. They are fascinated with my skin color. I gestured that it was o.k. to touch me, and rolled up my sleeves. Each of them held up an arm to mine comparing the color. They were mesmerized, and examining me in semi-disbelief. Then I lifted my skirt to the knee and it was an audible gasp from everyone. There’s more white! They were grabbing my calfs and smiling on the floor. It was the coolest moment of my life.
Mae Kham sat right in front of me, touching my skin with her tiny, thousand year old hands. I saw that she had once fractured her wrist badly and it wasn’t reset right. I picked up her tiny arms in my hands and tickled her palms gently. Putting my hands on the healed, fused lump of bone. She was watching my white hands on her dark hands, as this had never ever been done. It was so loving and comforting I can’t explain. It went on like this for an hour. I asked Justin to tell me if she was in pain, or if it hurt when I touched her. She said to him, “as long as I am touching her, she is good”.
This old woman walks miles up into the forest hills each day. She puts her arms shoulder deep into fucking fire ant hills to get their eggs. They attack her. She is made to last, and has, through wars, murders, government coups, starvation, and her current struggles of hunger and age. She’s up at dawn and moving well past dark when she stops by Mae Tao’s. She lives in a much smaller place, down the road.

She is the earth.
And when I try to close my eyes for sleep, animal sounds I do not recognize start to sing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Throw me the Midol, I Throw You The Whip.

We were supposed to depart Vientiane on Sunday morning, but plans change as they do. Finding nothing in Laos works the way the rest of the world does. Thank, Zeus.

For reference, there are no corporations here. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, no T-Mobile no Catherine Zeta Jones big Welshy face, no obvious push for Western trappings. You feel something is different, but don’t even realize it until it’s pointed out.
A Pepsi logo might be it, and it's not even real Pepsi. It's a blue and red swirl.
Vientiane has motorbikes, knock-off GRUCCI, cappuccino, Coke, vintage wine, and Swedish pastry. However fundamentally, Lao is a beautiful, vulnerable, wandering street baby, learning it's tricks.

I am SO LUCKY TO SEE THIS. I am in a place that has only been "free" to most of the planet’s borders for barely 10 years. I've lived in Seattle longer than residents here have been able to cross a river without being shot in the face while holding their children. I understand that there are sun-bleached, threadbare communist flags tucked away in hearts old enough to remember, but new roads are being paved between provinces. Time stands remarkably still in rural farming areas, as ramshackle homes edge Route 13 (the only North-South connection). Most are left in various phases of construction, but inhabited by families selling whatever they can out front to stay fed. This is the wild. And I am on a road trip south, headed to Savannahket with a father (who escaped Laos in 1975 for a Thai refugee camp) and his son.
Lucky seat, population: ME.

So, from what I’m told, Laos still gets beat up like a middle child by Thailand, Vietnam, and China. It is uneducated, and therefore smacked around for it. One small example: Thailand sows rubber tree plants (which happen to permanently render the soil unusable) on under-sold Lao farmland. Then, it imports the harvest back for processing in Thai factories, using only Thai labor, injecting their own economy. Plundering Lao resources, it's neighbor sells back the zillions of cheap plastic water bottles and bags that litter beautiful little Laos top to bottom.
During the rainy season, filth and debris sail back and forth into corners and stays there. You see the pointlessness in some brown eyes, and understand why cleaning up that type of thing is futile, when simply, life is spent better elsewhere. You are out working in a rice field, or you do not eat. It is a stunning landscape packed with mist, farms, boundless vegitation. There is a surplus of pure kindness, un-armed 80 lb. sleeping security guards, simplicity, and family bond as I have never witnessed.

And so....

Justin’s Dad, Bouhker, came round and picked us up at The Lane Xang Hotel. We hopped in his truck and drove to Pho. Can't drink the water or use the bathroom, but this soup is apparently right on. They ordered for me, and before we reached our table, out came 3 bowls of delicious golden broth brimming with cow intestines, beaks, butts, backs, stomachs and every other acquired taste I hadn't gotten around to acquiring yet. Eyes watering with respect and fear, I went for it. Tried a little guts, sipped away on some floaters, letting go. Glad I did, because the broth and noodles were great and I was hungry. I desperately avoided the big squigglers, and (hopefully) put on a big-brave-one in front of my company. I LOVED hearing Bouhker tell Lao history between spoon clangs.

We paid the check and threw buckets of Purell on each other. I got in the back-seat, Justin hopped in front. Boukher drove us sightseeing (after telling me his, “vision not so good”) to Sieng Phoune, a breathtaking statue park deep in the outskirts of town.
We walked on florescent green grass around a four-story reclining Buddha. We touched flowering trees, 3 Headed Elephants, and praying Goddesses. Justin and I climbed inside of what looked like a Tiki pumpkin shrine made of pebbled cement. Hollow, with steps curving upwards along the inside, we entered through the mouth. It had chiseled lips and teeth. We circled up steep and uneven dirt steps, maybe 5 inches wide. It was practically pitch black, we were laughing our diaphragms out, and set to break our necks tripping over tarantulas or worse. The park was closed to visitors at that hour, but Justin’s dad is turning out to be quite the Roger Moore of greater Laos. The attendant simply waived us and the fee so we could drop to our deaths V.I.P. style, undisturbed by other lookie-loo’s.
Light bruises of sky broke through square window holes in the exterior wall, half expecting Harrison Ford to come whaling around the corner and grab us by the waists. Luckily, Justin is afraid of heights, so this was extra scary. But alas, the view from the tippy-top was all worth it. We were that much closer to whatever God was. And “it” was here.

Now, let it be known that I look and feel exactly like Chris Elliot, pretty much everyday. Right down to the Cabin Boy striped maternity sailor shirt I borrowed from Sarah because I wanted to wear something “loose”. I feel excellent, don't know what time it is, and don’t give a crap. In a haze I left my watch in a personals basket going through the security X-Ray machine in Bangkok Airport. It was a $19 Coleman from Target. And I hope they are enjoying it’s glowface feature.
Sure sold me.
Monday came and we got a late start. Bouhker said that was bad, but here we go. I am told the trip takes “about 3 or 4 hour”. At noon our suitcases are in the truck bed and we're off. Ten minutes onto route 13 and I can’t stop taking pictures and video taping. Out my window it’s Africa, it’s China, it’s the world, and it is exactly what you dream rural Asia to be. And if you have to go to the bathroom, it’s in the forest with a roll of TP. There are horned water buffalo with door knockers and rope in their noses walking in front of our car, maybe 5 or 6 at a time. Goats dart out from everywhere, their little fannies following each other like soldiers. Roosters and hens do the hokey-pokey into the middle as you brake. You think you’re fully going to nail them and they get away. Now throw in hundreds of stray dogs with huge nipples and limps.
They wait until you’re close, narrowly sit or stretch in your sight line, acting like your tire will shoot meat bones. Then they saunter back to the side as your horn hits the air. Did I mention THERE'S FUCKIN PEOPLE. Dust faced little kids are getting honked out of the way holding watermelons. Motorbikes carrying entire generations cut right in front of you (if you hit them, no matter what, it’s your fault. If you hit livestock and wreck your vehicle, it’s the farmer’s fault, but he’s out of town.).
It is literally, non-stop Human Frogger at it’s most competitive level, and it’s a totally normal, twenty-four hour fact of life that not one person bats an eye at. Except freshmen.

It’s getting on 4 o’clock and we’re passing villages on either side lined with rundown stands selling plastic toys or or cooking piles of stuff on sticks. Justin’s dad pulled over for Pho. It had promotional BeerLao flags, outdoor tables, and lots of grimy condiment jars. We stretched our legs, ordered some soup and sat. The food came and I was ready with my game face. The whitey was going to survive some tripe. Everyone started eating. I was in there, mmm...mmm...MMM, super, but inside I was ralphing. I tasted hooves and hog hair but kept going. Only then did I realize Justin and Bouhker had sat back in their chairs not touching their food, not saying anything, they were full. I took that as a bad sign. We paid the bill, and I had barn turd taste in my mouth. Back in the truck about 15 minutes later, Justin acknowledged that wasn’t so great. No one had gum.
It's dark now, and we might as well have bi-centennial oil lamps strapped to the hood. Human Frogger rockets up a whole new scoreboard. All you can see are phosphorescent animal eyeballs darting everywhere and handmade motorized farm vehicles with no lights, carrying 15 people and infants. Now I know why leaving late was a bad idea. Going on 8 hours of “this is danger, no?”
I was ready to get to our destination, Savannahket, which we did, and without hitting a mosquito.
I will never understand how.

We spent the night in a motel where Justin was afraid by himself the week before. It had shiny brown wallpaper from India and lizards. Smelled like a nice place to gut a 'tute if you know what I mean. It was a twin with 2 beds. Justin had the mattress, I had the box spring. It featured a shower head next to the toilet and weird holes in the ceiling. We had a big day coming up. Our first day teaching English and visiting the kids at Chanthone Technology College. It’s a continuing education learning center that Boukher is curating. We showered up in the lizard hut (great water pressure), and unbelievably, got back in the car to go find a restaurant. The evening temp dropped to 70 and locals were basically wearing Ski pants. We headed for the Mekong river banks, and found a gem of a spot. It looked like Gilligan’s Island, complete with bamboo bar and a gangplank. We ate amazing fried chicken (that we should have hit), sticky rice, and drank ice-cold 40’s of BeerLao. We were totally revived and ready for bed.

Next morning it’s wake up time and Savannaket is, as Justin says, “Yakima”. It’s a roughneck place, not nearly as metropolitan (if I can say that) as Vientiane, but with a misunderstood and shifty charm. On the corner, a wood crate is used as a table. One or two tall plastic bottles of light brown liquid sitting on top. A farmlady carrying buckets on a stick across her shoulders back in Vientiane pulled out a similar bottle with the exact color liquid. She had fresh honey for sale. Justin’s dad told me this was Petrol. This was a gas station.
We pulled over to a girl selling fresh baguettes (which were delicious and chewy) on our way to Pho. I was so scared of donkey juice that I just had bread, and delicious Lao coffee. It looks like a hot black and tan with condensed milk. We got back in the truck and drove 30 kilometers into the rice fields and forests. About sixty kids are enrolled at Chanthone, and use one language cd to hear and practice proper pronunciation. Average age is 19, and it’s co-ed. Many Lao kids don’t make it past the 4th grade, if at all, and we are the first Americans to visit the school. I'm nervous and excited. We pulled into the long dirt drive and met the staff (6 men and women). It's a quiet place except for students buzzing in their classrooms. No telephone lines or internet, but a few computer workstations. They teach English, Microsoft applications, Agriculture, and Lao History. After greetings and introductions Justin and I stepped into a class full of kids. They were astonished, as were we. I have never in my life met more couragous, beautiful teenagers, so eager to learn and try. They wanted to hear us speak, and addressed us by "Teacher". They taught me Lao between lessons, and we all laughed and warmed. My heart was on fire as I read aloud, or wrote on the dry erase board, in disbelief that I have this chance to be of use. And I get to do it again tomorrow.