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.


tamifair said...

Wow. Wow. Wow. Thank you for writing so well, I can almost feel it. Relish this. Missing you, loving you. xo

corinne said...

hi rachel - we missed you (and are missing you still). i'm so glad that you've had this opportunity. can't wait to hear more about it when you come home! xo, corinne