Tonight, waiting for my peppery noodle salad, I was congratulated on my Lao by the older woman on the plastic stool next to mine. She was 60 years old, the noodle shop keeper said, working her mortar and pestle. I'm from Vietnam, the woman said, nodding. Your Lao is good-- where do you come from?
I'm from America, but I have lived in Asia a long time. I listed some countries. She nodded again.
The pestle pounded like a muted bell. She asked if I was married and laughed when I said I hadn't met a husband yet. The trees in the temple all stayed upright.
I paid for my bag of noodles and we all wished each other good luck. All the earth stayed in the ground; all our organs stayed in our bodies. All that was normal for me and surely by now for them, too. For the grace of peoples my country has treated so foully I am grateful every day.
Everything is closed on Easter Sunday in Montgomery Village, MD, which makes me happy for the folks who have time off, but is frustrating when you need wire cutters, for example, or new sunglasses, or a digital voice recorder, all things I thought this regular old Sunday would be a good day to pick up.
Walmart, though, is open. Walmart, I guess, is always open, Christian or not. And while I generally loathe how the low prices at Walmart are arrived at and its actions toward its employees, I will say that one nice thing about this seemingly cookie cutter store, a big box slotted among other big boxes in a very planned community, where medium-sized trees grow in regular intervals along the sidewalks and the streets have faux-English names and the townhouse on one end of the row is indistinguishable from the one of the other end, is that in this Walmart is a sloshing sea of shoppers representing more than half the globe. The Maryland suburbs are great for this, I guess. Women are wearing bright, Tanzanian cotton printed dresses and turbans, headscarves and embroidered tunics, saris. Bumper stickers are in Amharic; conversations are in Spanish; dashboards are tricked out with Hello Kitty and waving golden cats. I hate seeing it at Walmart, but damn, I love seeing it.
Went over the river to Chompet, one dusty day before the mango rains fell and brought the mountains out of hiding again. Walked through a hot, stuffy cave, made a dreadful pot under the sympathetic eye of an 11-year-old professional, and found the world's smallest waterfall--a trickle of single drops making a track through the bushy greenery the leftover dry season damp was supporting. The waterfall will be a cold, crashing stream again in a few months, but for now it's just a tiny tapping in the forest--and a good site for teenage parties. When we arrived, six young Lao people had parked a few motorbikes in a circle under the shade of the tall trees around the waterfall's stream. They had one ipod plugged into a giant amplifier and were sitting within inches of it, blasting Thai pop and drinking Lao Lao from a plastic water bottle. We were invited to have a swig as we left. Somebody's family makes some good moonshine--that Lao Lao was smooth. Maybe the kids know something after all.
Thanks for the photos, Don Wright! (http://www.donwrightimages.com/)
Every once in a while, when I'm walking somewhere alone, at night, a dog will show up and walk with me or wait with me until I'm home. It happened tonight, as I waited for the guesthouse night guard to come out from under his pop up mosquito net inside and open the locked gate for me, after having pulled the rope that tinkled the little bell in his window. A dog came walking up, sat with me for a few minutes while the guard rattled his locks, and then sauntered off back toward where he came from when I was inside the gate. I always think they've shown up to protect me.
My ghost is back. The mango rains brought wheezing; maybe they brought him, too. Last week I was waking up, short of breath, groping for my purse. Now I'm waking up in a ball, heart pounding, scared. Really scared. And it doesn't stop.
I slept last night with the light on after I woke up at 3am. I'm a damned adult, I thought, I can sleep with the light on if I want to. I can stay up for another hour reading. I can do whatever I please in the middle of the night. If I'm scared.
It was better to leave the light on than to lie in the dark, talking to myself about why I shouldn't be scared to have my foot dangling off my bed, exposed, stuck outside of the covers, but pulling my foot back in after a few seconds anyway.
This has happened before. It has followed me from the pretty, damp room at the back of the garden at the end of the peninsula to a crowded guesthouse to this wooden room with the window facing a busy street. And the only thing that ever worked is to treat it like a ghost.
The first time, I bought a bag of chips. I was coming home from some drinks with friends and probably bought one of the cheapest items at the minimart I always passed on my way home. I sat on the hard mattress and looked into empty room and said--I don't remember exactly what I said, but something like hey, I don't want any trouble, I don't mind if you want to be here, I just want to be able to sleep. And I bought you some chips. I hope we can get along. Maybe I said I hoped it found peace? I really don't remember. But I opened the chips and left them on the table, and slept until morning. And the next night, too. And that was it. I ate some of the chips the next day.
It happened again some time later--a year later, maybe less. This time there was less ceremony--I bought another bag of chips, though. And it went away.
An Indonesian friend of mine told me that was a mistake--that you're not supposed to give something to a ghost, because then they'll keep wanting things. I suppose I've made a mistake then. I'm not sure I can change things now.
Riding to Ban Sankalok, passing houses and chickens and wooden plank tables selling coffee and tea out of plastic tubs, I came upon a group of cyclists riding along single file. They had matching shirts that said "Dungdung goes to Laos 2014" across a picture of a golden stupa. I figured them for Chinese bikers--there seem to be a lot lately. I overtook them, one by one, and when I got to the head guy, he was riding slowly along, singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads," in English. I laughed and gave him the thumbs up, and in beautiful English he asked where I was from. It turned out they were a cycling group from Indonesia here on a bike tour of Laos. We parted ways shortly after that, me to my tailor, them to the Kuangsi Waterfall, but for a few moments on the road, we far-flung few were united in our love for John Denver.