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.

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