Monday, March 29, 2010

LAOS TRAVEL PART 8: Back to Luang Prabang & Vientiane

We returned to Nong Khiaw and I still wasn't feeling great, so I lay down while Hanna checked out the local hot sauna. At night, we walked around in the dark to look at the stars. In my entire life, I have never seen stars like this. Since it's already a small town, if you walked even a few yards out of the light, you were in pitch-black darkness and the sky was filled completely with stars. It was pretty unbelievable, and I wish you all could have seen it. Especially my dad, as I know he enjoys a good star-gaze.

The next day we headed back to Luang Prabang. We biked around, saw some more temples, and checked out the French Language Center's Biennial. As I've said before, my life in Asia is pretty lacking in "culture," or whatever would define culture in New York. I miss contemporary art museums and galleries and homey bookstores and independent films. I'm happy to give those things up for a year here, but when I come across the stray cultural institution, my soul is always a bit quenched. The exhibit at the Center was great. It was called Tele-Spectators and it was a series of photographs about how we watch television. It touched on the vulnerable physical and mental positions we end up in when we're consuming media. I thought the photographs, which were taken all over the world, were unexpectedly beautiful. Pardon the quality, since these are pictures-of-pictures:

Eventually it was time to leave Luang Prabang and our cheap, lovely guest-house, with its long list of rules on the back of the door. Numbers 5 and 6 were the hardest ones to follow.

I didn't think it was possible for our bus back to Vientiane to be worse than our bus from Vientiane, but it was! We got on, and immediately the driver gave everyone two plastic bags. Curious. We hadn't even left yet, and already the woman ahead of us was opening her little jar of smelling salts. These seemed to be ominous signs. And indeed, without exaggeration, more than half the people on this bus spent the ride vomiting. The road was pure switchbacks and curves and turns and it was just awfulness. Hanna and I didn't throw up, luckily. We have iron stomachs. Finally, the road straightened out and we entertained ourselves by recounting the entire script of "When Harry Met Sally" and singing Dar Williams's Greatest Hits. Our fellow passengers might not have been overjoyed, but I had a lovely time.

Then, it was back to Vientiane. We stopped at an internet cafe so I could buy plane tickets and check my bank account, and who should walk in but Ross and Kelsey, from our Luang Prabang cooking class! It was a funny coincidence. Later that night, they met up with us for a drink at Makphet, perhaps one of the best restaurants I've ever been to. It's run by a nonprofit organization and all the waiters are former street children, who are being trained in the service/hospitality field.

The next day, Hanna and I went our separate ways, sadly enough. I had a wonderful time with her. Next adventure: a solo trip to Cambodia!

Thursday, March 25, 2010


After trekking through the jungle, we arrived in the village where we were to stay for the night. I've sadly forgotten the name of it, but it was very small and rural. Hanna had been to villages like this before, in India and Ghana, but I had never been to a place so tiny and poor. I guess I could figure out a more politically correct word, but "poor" sums it up pretty well. Rural poverty feels very different from urban poverty.

It was still a while until dinner, so Hanna and I walked around and explored the village. Onh told us that the children used to be very afraid of foreigners, but by now, they're used to it. You could have fooled me - they quickly formed a tiny mob and stared at us, looking at turns petrified and suspicious.

We finally won them over, sort of, by playing some games. In my experience of teaching kindergarten, the Hokey Pokey is always a hit. Hanna and I demonstrated, but only one girl was brave enough to participate. (She's the one in the pink dress, in the middle). She was by far the smartest and most outgoing.

Then Hanna had the idea of playing Tic-Tac-Toe in the dirt, which was also successful. Most of the kids preferred to watch. I was a tiny bit dumbfounded by the amount of babies-carrying-babies. And bonus points if you find the kid with the machete in background.

The gender roles were also kind of interesting. Yes, for the most part, girls seemed to be responsible for the children, but at one point I noticed a young boy take a baby from his friend. He threw the baby on his back as gently as he could, and tied a cloth around himself. There didn't seem to be any gender-based stigma in terms of taking care of the little ones.

Then it was time for dinner. Onh had picked some green plants on the trek, which he cooked deliciously, alongside some sticky rice and spicy chicken soup and green beans. We ate by candlelight in the home of a man, his wife, and son. I never caught their names.

It was a great meal, and I ate voraciously. I also smiled a lot, which was commented on by the family members. And I drank quite a bit - this is where the lao lao comes into play. The father had some homemade rice whiskey and offered it to us. Onh told us about the Lao drinking traditions, which involve pouring a shot for oneself, and then "showing" it to the group. Then you drink it, and pass it onto the next person. Also, when you drink, each drink represents a part of your body that you are now developing. As in: now you have arms! Now you have a leg! Now you have a nose! I guess it was the combination of experiencing new things and feeling hardcore about drinking with the village dad, but in total, I grew two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, a mouth, and a nose. That's a lot of lao lao.

After dinner, the little boy's parents sat with him and helped him with his homework, since school was starting the next day. Some of the children in this village looked a bit sickly, but this little boy seemed really well-cared for. He read from a thin, worn textbook, featuring images of Lao people, farms, rice baskets, and houses on stilts. His father encouraged him in his reading, then rocked him in his arms as it grew later in the evening. Oh, nothing touches my cold, jaded heart like fathers and sons.

In the morning, we woke up and my stomach was very, very angry with me. "Why did you drink so much lao lao?" it said. "Also, why do you refuse to poop for days on end? That can't be healthy." "Be quiet," I said to my stomach. But it gurgled all day. Also, my appetite was totally shot. I couldn't eat anything all day, and if you know me, you know that's a rarity. Despite my nausea, soon it was time to bid goodbye to our host family (dad below) and continue on our hike.

We stopped by the school and said goodbye to the kids. They didn't seem heartbroken to see us go.

Ultimately, it was a really unique experience. I have some more analytical thoughts about my time in the village, involving class and poverty and development and travel and Southeast Asia, but I'm getting over my flu and I can't really put anything together coherently. Luckily, I kept a journal in Cambodia that sums up my thoughts in a better way. So, stay tuned. Goodbye, village.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I've completely lost track of the days at this point, but the next day (whenever that was), Hanna and I set out on a trek to a small village. Because Laos is still littered with land mines, and my sense of direction is terrible, we were accompanied by a guide, whose name was Onh. He told us he was tired because he had been to a wedding the night before and his friends made him drink too much. He was our age and we liked him a lot.

The trek was really so much fun. I had been told that flip-flops were good footwear, but a healthy amount of the hike involved clambering up slippery, mossy rocks, which wasn't easy. The flip-flops came in handy later, when we waded through rivers and pools and mud. Once in a while, Onh would find something edible and show us how to cut it open and eat it.

We stopped for lunch at a small hut, belonging to an old woman and her many pigs. We ate sticky rice and meat and chatted a bit. I felt I knew Onh well enough by that point to ask him about Lao attitudes towards America, since we are directly responsible for it being the most bombed country ever. In history. "What do your parents think of America?" I asked him. "Oh, they hate America!" he replied cheerily. Fair enough. Then Hanna rested on the porch for a while, as did Onh, who was sleeping off his hangover. I wandered around the dusty yard and checked out the animals.

After lunch, we kept walking - through thick jungle with cut-down banana trees, and quiet villages and quiet-er rice fields. I've never seen rice growing so close up, and since Hanna did some backbreaking rice farming in India, she explained to me how it works. I won't bore you with the details. (Translation: I don't really remember, except that you plant the rice in the muddy water, they grow little rice grains in the green shoots, then you take out the rice, and - voila! - it ends up at my table).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

LAOS TRAVEL PART 5: Boat Trip Up The Mekong

Our next stop was Non Khiaw, a small-ish town north of Luang Prabang. We decided to travel via the Mekong, so we headed down to the riverside in the morning to get on a boat. Because I've developed an almost debilitating fear of lateness when it comes to travel, we got there really, really early. Hanna likes to get to places at the last minute, so for rest of the trip we combined forces and usually arrived at places at a normal hour.

After waiting around for a bit, we boarded a narrow wooden boat along with some older French people in nice sweaters, carrying expensive snacks. (Is that enough cultural stereotyping for you?) As I've said a million times in this blog: the scenery was amazing. It was an eight hour boat ride, but it never felt a minute too long. We read, we thought, we ate little pieces of Hanna's crackers, we waved hello to fisherman and kids, we looked at the mountains and the water, and once in a while we got out to stretch our legs.

In addition to the spunky French folk, there was also a quiet Polish woman, a Brit, and a dreamy Israeli guy. We chatted for a bit and he asked me for some Yunnan travel advice. Then I took surreptitious photos of him and daydreamed about our future children. This paparazzi shot doesn't really do him justice.

When we arrived in Nong Khiaw, the sun had already begun its slow descent behind the mountains. It was a really beautiful time of day. I felt lucky to be there.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

LAOS TRAVEL PART 4: Cooking Class!

One of the touristy-but-totally-worth-it things we did in Laos was take a cooking class. They're pretty popular and for good reason - I learned a lot about Lao cooking and culture, and the food we made was delicious, if I may say so myself.

The class was held at a restaurant called Tamnak Lao, which also housed a bookstore that benefited a nearby orphanage. It was run by an older Australian woman named Ruth. She was such a character - holy cow, I could not get enough of her. First of all, she clearly enjoyed making people uncomfortable. When asked an innocuous question about Laos, she would smile bitterly and say things like, "Well, they're starving to death in the countryside" or "tourism is ruining this country" and then luxuriate in the awkward silence. She also would make vague references to her inclusion in the Lao people. Naturally, tourists would ask, "How long have you lived here?" and she would reply in her really strong accent, "Well, we came back in '95." And that was it. Oh, my brain was going nuts. Came back from where, and when did you leave, and why? But she clearly liked being an enigma, saying things like, "We had no money back then," referring to herself and the people of Luang Prabang. Oh, she was a weirdo. But fascinating.

Anyway, we joined a few Chinese and Americans in this class. There were about eight of us in total. First we watched the teachers, Leng and Phia, as they demonstrated the dishes. Lao people eat a lot of sticky (or "glutinous") rice and it's unlike any other rice I've known. You eat it with your hands, by rolling a small ball of it in your palm and then use it to pick up other food or dips. First, you have to wash it and then soak it for several hours, or overnight. Then you put it in a woven steamer and steam over boiling water, like in the picture below:

After watching the demonstration, it was time to make our own dishes!

Oh, the glory of it all!

I think our food turned out quite nicely. If my memory serves me correctly, from left to right we have: Tofu Laap (traditional cold salad), Tom Chaeow Pha (fish with eggplant), and Luak Puk (mixed vegetables with spicy tomato jeow/dip)

When the food was finished, we all sat down outside and ate together. It was really nice. My favorite people were Kelsey and Ross, a couple (our age) from Portland. They currently live and teach on a South Korean island where they are the only foreigners. They were generally awesome, and after the class and the meal, the four of us went to get drinks at a very French bar, where we shared funny stories about living in Asia and teaching and traveling. Here's a very bad picture of my drink - lemon and lao lao, a traditional Lao rice whiskey. It was yummy. Stay tuned! Lao lao does not treat me so kindly in the future...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

LAOS TRAVEL PART 3: Exploration

To be honest, both Hanna and I were a little disappointed with certain elements of Luang Prabang. Yes, it was pretty and on a river and had some sweet French touches. But the main area of town was populated almost completely by tourists. There wasn't much of a local feel to any of it and instead of peeking in on a community, I felt more like we were the community. The restaurants, shops, bookstores, and cafes were all for tourists. It felt like a strange little bubble at times. There were some exceptions, though - we explored the morning market and rented bicycles and rode them out of town and took off our shoes down by the riverside.

After a semester of living in a largely bicycle-less city, it felt amazing to get on an old-fashioned bike and ride on dusty roads through little farm villages and wooded swamps. Supposedly there was a waterfall, but we never found it.

The river looked pretty dirty, but it was peaceful. Children were bathing in it and a few tourists were swimming.

I think this picture proves it: I was adopted and my real parents were midgets.

Friday, March 12, 2010

LAOS TRAVEL PART 2: Luang Prabang

The night bus to Luang Prabang was probably one of the strangest journeys I've taken. We were told we were taking the "VIP" Bus, but we quickly learned that we must not be Very Important People because the bus had seats that didn't recline and seemed to make a stop every twenty minutes. I tried to sleep, but it was almost impossible, and every time I opened my eyes I saw something strange: a bizarre carnival, a gruesome motorcycle accident. I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie.

So Hanna and I arrived in Luang Prabang in the early morning a bit tired, but happy. The entire city is actually a World Heritage Site due to its many Buddhist temples and colonial French architecture.

After picking a random cheap guesthouse, we wandered around the historic areas. I was surprised by how affected I was by the temples (also called wats). They are very ornate and beautiful and small and, as I'm sure you can imagine, there is an emphasis on quiet. Ducking out of the sun and stepping into these dark, intimate, gold-flecked little rooms, I could see why people are drawn to Buddhism. The Buddha statues, the incense, the altar - it all seemed to have been created with a great deal of love. Also, while religion has historically been the cause of some horrific shit over the centuries, it has also inspired some magnificent art. In the past when I've seen gorgeous cathedrals or eerie Jesus paintings, it's always given me a sense of awe, but with the Buddhist wats I was left more with a feeling of quiet wonder and introspection. The last Jewish thing I did was taschlich in the beginning of the year and I had sort of forgotten how nice spirituality can be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Be Patient, Friends!

I know it's been a few days since I wrote last. I promise I'm going to keep updating you on my travels, but I want to do it when I'm awake and alert. The combination of starting class again and celebrating Chris's birthday (a great weekend-long affair) has kept me in a haggard state.

I'll just leave you with these two photographs for now. I'm so thrilled that Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Directing - but Monique's acceptance speech is what brought tears to my eyes. A great year for women in film.