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.