Friday, April 29, 2011

Everything flowers

Bad things about the rainy season:

All the rain.

Power outages.

Good things about the rainy season:

Foregrounds of super saturated greens and pinks and yellows.

Backgrounds of mountains like humps; distant, dark gray centers with frilly edges of deep blue and green.

Yellow light that makes all the edges quiver.

Big, heavy clouds frozen mid-explosion--clouds with real personality--on, over, above.

The return of the rivers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Random things from the last few days

My computer resists egg yolk. (I've rediscovered the joys of bread and fried eggs.)

The zither/chant/xylophone extravaganza at the wat is still going strong.

It rains every other day. Everything is blooming. My head is exploding as a result, but it sure is pretty: huge, very strictly conical trees draped as with tinsel by long sprays of little flowers, yellow and purple and fuschia. (Wow. I've never tried to spell fuschia before. I'll take that as a good thing. Also, this is my excuse for, perhaps, misspelling it.)

The little white dogs here are very cute. The mama of the pair has learned to stand on her hind legs and wave her front paws when she wants to be petted. She's very affectionate and always wants to be picked up. When you do, she invariably latches her little teeth--hard--into the skin on the inside of your elbow and starts very seriously humping your hip.

Pictures: Stuff at hand in the last few days.

Friday, April 22, 2011

This is how you have a bassi

You have to wear a sin, a Lao skirt.

You have to wear a scarf or some piece of fabric over your left shoulder.

There has to be a monk or a holy man.

He prays generally, then specifically, then generally again.

You eat food and drink Beer Lao.

I wore my sin and went to P's house. P works for G and E. His mother in law or mother or aunt—relationships are difficult to specify here—had had a stroke recently and “couldn't move her knee.” The family had had some bad luck recently. A bassi would turn it around. It was small—only his extended family and people from his work.

A holy man (who happened to be the father of one of P's colleagues at the workshop), his wife, and some elders from their village came to P's house. A mat covered the floor. I was given a scarf to drape over my left shoulder, like the other women. (I may have been given the last spare scarf; P's wife was draped with a limp grey towel.) We knelt around a large wicker plate on a stand covered with a pink scarf, with a pyramid in the center draped with marigolds. Long bits of wicker wrapped with string stuck out of the sides of it, and bowls of little rice cake deserts were placed along the bottom. We knelt and touched the plate with one hand while the holy man prayed in Lao or Pali or who knows what.

After the general prayer, the tying of strings began. The holy man, the elders, and then anyone else who wanted to give a blessing tied strings around our wrists. You hold out one hand and hold the other up straight, as though you're praying with one hand. The person tying the string says a prayer for you while tying it. There are different traditions—some just pray, tie, and ask for your other hand. Some grab hold of your hand and shake it afterward. Some rub the string up and down your arm before turning and tying it. After each person ties it, you press your palms together and bow your head. You can be casual with your peers, but for the holy man or the elders you must move more slowly and bow your head more deeply.

After you've crawled around the mat on your knees and submitted to each person who wants to wish you well, you gather around the plate again. Again, you touch the plate with one hand. The holy man prays. When he finishes praying, he hands you one of the sweets underneath. You take a piece, eat it, and put the rest back on the plate. There's another quick prayer. Then everyone grabs for the treats and, munching, wanders outside to tables set with food and beer.

Then, as always in Laos, you drink, eat, and, if you're unlucky, get roped into some line dancing. What a country.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Smoke bad, fire good

The wats are strung with fairy lights and the stupas are ringed with candles because the buddhas have come outside. All the little flames stand out on the unlit main street. The monks drum at unusual times—seven thirty today, in addition to the usual four am and four pm. The buddhas will be washed with water from gold bowls--ladies have been carrying them around town on motorbikes all day, riding sidesaddle, wearing their best sins.

The moon is nearly full. With all the smoke in the sky, it looks blurry and rusted.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Get behind me, Satan

Today these things happened

I dreamed about rats and woke up with a millipede on my pillow.

I got rid of the millipede, jumped away from the big brown spider on my doorframe, and went back to bed.

Today is Pi Mai day. The big parade that marched down the main road into Wat Xien Thong, the oldest temple around here, today marched back out. Out again went all the regiments—ethnic minorities in black with silver ropes and beads and polygonal headdresses; Lao loum girls in metallic sins and gold sashes marching with parasol-bearing minders to defend their tight topknots and heavy makeup from the water chucked by the proles on both sides. Borne along were big, professional signs announcing awards given to Luang Prabang—“Environmentally Sustainable City Award 2008” was one, though there were others. 2008 seemed to be a big year for LP. The fact that it's 2011? Bo pen ngang. (I'm pretty it's neither according to the traditional Lao calendar.)

It was hot again today, hotter than yesterday; the sun heated even the cold water we poured down each other's backs so quickly that after shivering for a second we were again standing on the street soaked and steaming. It was a day to be immersed. I walked a block down to the brown Mekong with some friends from the guesthouse. We descended the long royal staircase that led from the old wat to the water—usually jammed with boats, it was wonderfully empty, the boatmen having decided to celebrate by drinking Beer Lao on dry land. My long skirt ballooned around me like a big, striped jellyfish until it sank and stuck to my legs and threatened to pull me under. I knotted it up into a loincloth. Bathing suits would be unseemly.

I came home, I read a book, I waited for the sun to go down and the water fighters to retire. I went to the night market to pick up food. As I was waiting, someone groped me. It was very delicate, very precise, and very cowardly—done by a grown man passing by at the same time as some kids. I wasn't quick enough to grab him, but I shouted—that may be too strong a word—something angry and obscene and followed the person I thought was the culprit to his motor bike. Had I been sure at the time, maybe I would have done something better/dumber, but I was still trying to work out what happened, and while I became confirmed in my suspicion by the fact that he wouldn't look at me while he put on his helmet and rode away, I didn't end up with enough time to do something spectacular like...ah, well. I don't know what. Smashing his wrist with a hammer would be satisfying. If I had a hammer.

So, seething, I walked my bike out toward the night market exit, only to find my path blocked by a wandering drum/dance troop. I was, of course, furious about this added insult. But the performance was just joyful—a group of white-clad men and women, trailing red and blue and yellow scarves, jumped and twirled in unison while keeping up complicated beats on the different drums strapped across their chests. A woman wearing a wraparound mask of four faces seemed to be a central figure. The men were tall and some had facial hair—they weren't Lao. Without my glasses I couldn't tell where they were from...maybe Chinese? The phrases I heard them use were in English. They kept at it long enough for me to calm down and decide that this little artistic eruption was an example of taking the good with the bad. I ended up sanguine enough to buy a few presents for folks back home on my way out of the market. I didn't even bargain that hard.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

But the best thing about Pi Mai...

But the best thing about Pi Mai, and Laos in general, is this.

I went out on my bike for some som tam (in Lao it's som sam and also some other longer, complicated word...tam..nak...something) at around 8. The road along the Mekong is coated with mud, broken here and there by big white splotches that mark where revelers had been throwing flour. I rode past all the proper restaurants (all were having big barbecues or special New Year meals) until I hit a place more like a shack—they have the som tam I want. There was a girl behind the wooden table stacked with sodas, assorted greens, and cigarette display cases full of fruit, that served as the service counter.

Me: Mi somtam bo? (Do you have som tam?)
Me: Mi khao neo bo? (Do you have sticky rice?)
Ow nung som tam.(I want one som tam.)

At a low table attached to the restaurant sat four men in their fifties, drinking beer.

Som-tam, pa-pa-ya salad, said one.
This from another, the oldest, who had stood up. Bo pet? Bo mak pet? (Not spicy? You don't like spicy?)
Me: Mak pet. Mak pa dek. (I like spicy, I like fish sauce.)

Much laughter. Come, come here, come here. They all waved their arms in unison. As the cement benches couldn't be dragged, I had to lift first one leg, then another, to squeeze into the little space between the low chair and the low table. I angled my knees sideways. There was lots of Lao talk about a jok, a glass. One man (who I came to believe was somewhat slow) ran off and returned with a new glass. He put ice in it and poured beer over it.

Happy Lao New Year said the one in the red shirt, the only one whose name I'd learn, Sit. We clincked glasses. In English and Lao, we got through who I was, how I spoke Lao, where I lived, did I like Lao: the standard introductory conversation.

I was given a small, speckled hard boiled quail egg to eat.
Me: Anee khai, bo? (This egg? Pointing at what was very obviously the bowl of quail eggs on the table.)
Yes, with patience. Egg.
My little cup of beer was refilled.
Sit (the only one whose name I learned. He had on a red shirt. ) You want Lao boyfriend?
Illegal! Police don't like.
More laughter. Conversations between the men in Lao.
Sit: But Lao man small. Is OK?
Me: Bo pen ngang (no problem).
More conversation: I lived in Thailand, I like to stay here, Are you from Luang Prabang? Yes we are, etc.

Sit: If you like, you must come visit me my house.
Me: [brightly] ...
Sit: You visit my house?
Me: Where's your house?
Conversation in Lao:
Sit: 500 meters.
Me: I have to eat my dinner!

My som tam is ready, I get up to go. Many hands flap gracefully and insistently in the air. A glass is quickly filled and raised.
Before, before.
Do I have to drink all of it?

I downed about half. Everyone said “happy new year” for the thousandth time, I pedalled off. Everyone waved.

Then, when I stopped for water and orange juice on the way home, I was given half a fish. The proprietor of the drink stand had been eating dinner with his brother. Dinner cannot be interrupted in Laos without being shared, not even when it means lifting half a fish off the plate you're still working on and insisting I take it to eat with my som tam.

“Be careful of bones,” he said, as he dropped it into my bag.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I stayed up late last night watching "The Reader" (stories about
hopelessness, isolation, and Nazis fitting my recent mood). I woke up
early, felt groggy from the little spring cold I've picked up, and
decided to doze a bit. I ended up getting out of bed close to ten.

As I was girding my loins for the three minute walk to the soup shop
and breakfast, I got a call from Leslie.

"Sabaidee! What's up?" Very cheerful.

Me, cranky. "Nothing. Going for soup. What's happening?"

"Well...there seems to be a Pi Mai party happening at my house.
There're, like, a ton of people here already. There's going to be a
bassi. Want to come?"

No, I'm thinking. But in the spirit of not being a joyless bitch for
the entire Lao New Year, I decided to suck it up and actually make
myself go to this party (where, I knew, people would be exceedingly
friendly, feed me until I was stuffed and refill my glass until I
begged them to stop. I've been so moody lately, even that was a hard
sell). Bonus--as it was still morning, I probably wouldn't get wet on
the way there.

"Yeah. But soup first."

The party was centered around a long wooden table set up in Leslie's
yard. A few feet away from the table, some pots simmered over a fire,
tended to by a few of the older members of the group. The table was
laid with duck blood soup (pinkish, with peanuts, mint, and other
green leaves floating in it), beef and tofu soup, peanut dip, bowls
full of pieces of grilled beef, and several bowls of what looked like
murky broth with scallions floating in it. Beer Lao flowed. It was
11:30 in the morning.

Leslie pointed to the unknown broth. "What's in that?" she asked Lanoy
(Lanoy is Leslie's Lao second-in-command at PoP).
"Shit, yes. But before it comes out."
"Shit still in the intestines?" I ask, remembering this from my first
time in Laos, years ago.
"Yes, yes."

It's...bitter. I don't recommend it.

The duck blood soup was better; salty, generally tasty. I had only a
little spoonful, to try it. People reached in with chopsticks to pull
floating bits out of all the bowls, or dipped pieces of cut carrots
and tomatos in some of the powders or dips on the table. Occasionally,
someone would wave his or her hands ineffectually at the growing swarm of flies. Everyone laughed. Everyone poured beer for everyone
else. All the beer was served over ice.

Unsurprisingly, something entered my system that needed to exit in
haste. (I blame the bowl of spiced feces.) I had to abort my first attempt at leaving the party--still, I
am ashamed to say, gloomy and depressed--to rush back to use the
facilities. But expelling that nasty little bug seemed to help me get
rid of my black mood as well....and this is how I ended up soaked, in
the back of a truck, drinking more beer and throwing water wildly at
anyone who passed.

Leslie: "We're going to take out the PoP truck. Lanoy's going to
drive. Wanna come?"
"Dude." (Good-mood-Michelle says 'dude' a lot.)

We got picked up at the cafe where Leslie's boyfriend works. (We soaked his work shirt for him before we left. He wasn't thrilled.) Lanoy
drove. In the back of the truck were thirteen soaked Lao folks (some
PoP workers, some members of Lanoy's basketball team, some friends of
friends), two huge drums of water, a case of beer, a bottle of soda,
and one glass, which we all shared. Leslie and I made it crew of fifteen. When
we got done throwing water on each other, we cruised through town,
slowing down and pulling up next to any roadside Pi Mai encampment to
do battle (or rather, to bless them by dumping water on them, which is
the point of the whole holiday). Shrieking, passing around the beer
one at a time in the little cups, yelling "sok dee pi mai!" we took a
slow tour of the town, pitting our buckets, bowls, and water bottles
against the roadside hoses and squirt guns. The youngest of the group,
a seventeen-year-old girl, expertly popped beer bottle tops off
against each other. We even took on a hostage at one point--a group
of young men were out rubbing cooking grease on passers by (sometimes
people throw flour or colored water or even paint, it looks like).
One of them climbed up into the truck, brandishing a sooty, greasy
wok. We all pressed back into the front corner of the truck bed, hands
out to protect our faces, yelling "Bo, bo!" Then the truck started.
The wok-bearer looked confused, then concerned, as we realized we had
him trapped and started laughing and pointing. We slowed down enough for him
to jump off a block later.

When we ran out of water, we turned an empty bucket into a drum. I
don't know the words to any of these Pi Mai songs, but as a big part
of them seems to be clapping and stamping one's feet, I was able to

Pi Mai. It's annoying, but it's a good holiday. I was looking at these
folks in the truck, thinking, this is the way to celebrate. Drink some
beer, sing some songs, get rowdy in the streets for a few days, invite
everybody to join in. There's no standing on ceremony, no exclusivity,
no airs.

Dee, dee lai.

Monday, April 11, 2011


It rained and things cooled last night but the sun and the heat have come flooding back in with the light. The dak champa are blooming in all their different colors. It's a distinctive tree. Nothing on it droops. All its branches are strong; every flower is help up, presented, on a solid base. Dak champa somehow reminds me of a honeycomb, the way its stiff gray branches create cells as they curve over each other in space, decorated with flowers like swirls of icing. Even the flowers are hard to crush. Their delicate shading doesn't match their real toughness.

I am reading a book about Europe. It's Sunday morning. The coffee and croissants at this bakery are real; the wood is rea; the stone is real. I may have accidentally pointed the sole of my foot at someone, a very rude mistake. My shorts are too short for Laos, but it's the New Year and about a block further down this road are kids and adults wanting to douse me with water, so I've relaxed my fashion standards. My armpits are damp; if I let my hair sit on the back of my neck I feel feverish.

Across the narrow street is a wat surrounded by very low, very white walls. (This is the season for cleaning the temples.) But between me at the back of the cafe and the wat is a complicated depth of greenery: first, a kind of small palm, three spindly stalks with three puffballs on top, the leaves wilted and swaying without the least resistance. Then dak champa, strong and graceful, gray stems lifting pink and white flowers upright like an offering. Something behind intrudes into the picture from the top left corner (framed by the dark beams of the cafe's open front) little spiky twigs and strands of oval leaves. The whole branch bobs constantly. Behind that is the bean tree with its long black seed pods that dangle oddly all up and down its arms. Underneath the bean tree is a shrub with broad, shiny, dark green leaves that burst out all over it in star shapes. Each group of five leaves looks like it's just exploded.

There are a dozen other green things that I've ignored.

I love every plant. Why is this? I don't even know their names. I think I might love them just because they are abundant. They seem so good at just being alive. They quietly do the thing they are supposed to do; that's it.

(Sadly, my love for plants doesn't seem to have turned me into a good gardener. I'm going to have to work on this.)

Thunder, every night. The rains are here early.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April, continued

The sun looks like a mistake someone tried to rub out.

No, really; it's not just an easy, death-obsessed metaphor. There's so much smoke in the air that one can barely see across the Mekong. (This will be profound, I suppose, to those of you who've been here.) The mountains have all pulled back into the blur. The sun hangs like a tiny dot over the river. It looks like someone dropped a blob of salmon paint on top of white, swirly expanse and then tried to rub it in and paint over it. You can almost see the grid of the canvas coming through.

This is what we'll be living with for the next month or so. It is not, according to E and G, the result of slash and burn farming—that's just small farmers and small plots and not nearly enough smoke to fill this valley. No—according to my sources, it's industries burning rice straw for potash and teak farmers burning the undergrowth of teak forests in the mistaken assumption that it'll make their trees grow faster. Or something. The government, however, is quite happy to let the Hmong take the blame for it...

I may have to give up running and spend more time inside. No trip to the countryside for me, until this goes away. If I start to feel bad, I may have to take myself down to Southern Thailand or Cambodia to get away from the smoke-- but I'll wait and see. I may not feel it much.

I had my first Pi Mai dousing today—from Vini,of course. Totally premature, as Pi Mai is still days away. Troublemaker.

April arrived suddenly

The light is mad this afternoon. The sky is dirty white and low and thick. The greens are all saturated. Everything that isn't green seems unreal and in the way. The green things are waiting. Nothing moves—movement feels incorrect. The leaves are focused and not amused by wind or insects or fingers. Heavy green mangos hang motionless at the end of threadlike branches. The fecundity is obscene, smug.

A big storm would seem to be coming—but the rains here are teasing lately. I haven't seen rain for a week or more, but the mornings are often surprisingly damp and cool, when I'm up early enough to see them. (We're all sweaty after nine am.) It's early for the rainy season, anyway. Next week we all pelt each other with water—it ought to be blazingly hot and clear. Pi Mai. It'll be good to have a second new year. Any chance to slough off bad and try again seems good right now. (Maybe collecting new years would be a good way to organize a journey.)

A sign on a building I pass half a dozen times a day reads “Closed for avocation.” I'd say there's a little invisible sign like that posted above my head right now, but that would be glib. The truth is that my brain feels closed, but I have no idea why or what the outcome will be.

This morning, a lizard near my chair somehow lost his tail. About a foot away from me, lizard crouched, frozen. The tail--a bit about the length of the end of my pinky--trailed six inches behind him. As we both watched, it flopped around on the grey stone desperately, as though it were really dying, as though it could really be said to have lived.