Food for thought

from : a wooden house. Oudomxai, Laos.

Removing my shoes I clamber up after my host, a wooden ladder staircase leads to the second floor of their small home. The downstairs room has a dirt floor and is for cooking on the wood stove and has a small toilet. The upstairs is partitioned into a common sleeping room for all six who live here, and a larger room for congregating.
"Have you ever been in a wooden house before?" asks my host through the man who would act as interpreter for the evening.
"I grew up in a stone house in England but houses in America are made from wood. Just not quite like this."

I am driving across the whole of Northern Laos over two days in the back of a postal vehicle driven by two postmen hired as chauffeurs. Not by me of course, for I couldn't afford this kind of luxury, I was just lucky enough to bump into them while we were all trapped in Phongsali on election day. That was the day before they were to drop of their customers and head back to their home on the other side of the country - my direction. In the car today, one turned to me and asked if I missed my wife. Very much I said. I think perhaps they pity me a little for such a social people as the Lao could not imagine any value in doing something alone. I never see them do anything but commute alone, and when they reach their destination there is always someone waiting for them. As we pulled into the dusty periphery of Oudomxai they asked if I would like to have dinner with them and some of their relatives here in town.

There is no furniture in the upstairs room save the cabinet holding the small television tuned to a Thai channel. The entire time I am there it is not turned off. The entire time I am there it seems the newscast runs a continual loop. We sit on the thick palm mats on the floor cross-legged and are served hot aniseed flavored tea. Introductions are made and hands are shaken. Two more male friends arrive, more bows and shaken hands. Aaah...Amelika! They say it with a broad and friendly smile.

Vietnam was a country troubling for me, as an honorary American, to travel through as I am aware of my countrys role in that its history. I am sensative to rubukes I feel I deserve. Laos on the other hand, is a total mystery to most of us. Even how to say the name is confusing since JFK thought Americans wouldn't care about a country called 'Louse' and decided 'Lay-os' had a better ring to it. This ignorance comes despite the fact that the secret war our country waged here was in some ways more brutal than the campaign in neighboring Vietnam. And secret it was. The ancient name for this country was "The land of a million elephants." During the 60's and 70's war correspondents called it "The land of a million irrelevants" to reflect the fact that while the body counts of Vietnam made headlines, stories written about the war here were buried in the back pages. If permitted publication at all. It was not until 1969 that the American public first found out about the bombing campaign over Laos that had started five years earlier.

Soon baskets of sticky rice are brought in and placed on the floor. A foot high rattan table is carried in, laden with steaming bowls of traditional Lao food and we gather round it. The women and children melt away to eat downstairs in the kitchen for on special occasions like this, the men dine alone. There is the fish we bought as a gift from an old women in roadside village of grass huts. Some of it fried, some ground up into a spicy mince and still more in a bowl of soup. There is a plate of Basil leaves that are broken from the stem and eaten whole or together with other food, and a soup of vegetables and pork. This last I think because of my presence. I was told earlier that the Lao people only love fish so much because it is cheap and easy to find. Pork and Beef are not, though the pork dish was barely touched throughout the meal. The Lao use chopsticks occasionally, especially to serve a particularly good piece of fish to someone else, occasionally a spoon to slurp from the communal soup bowl, but traditionally the Lao eat with their hands. A handful of sticky rice is molded into a ball, a bite size piece is broken off and a piece of vegetable or meat is picked up and squeezed in. Towels were provided to wipe the hands but for this occasion we were given white cotton napkins. 'Vietnam!' The host said proudly as he handed them out. They were still crisp, never having seen use and I a little embarrassed at this gesture. We spread them on our laps where they sat unused the entire meal, everyone preferring to use the grubby towels rather than dirty a proud possession. In Laos the best quality products are Thai, followed by Vietnamese. Everyone agrees that the Chinese make cheap imitations. Laotian doesn't feature on the list as little is manufactured here.

Its' powerful neighbors have always had an interest in Laos deeper than commercial. It has historically acted as a buffer between more powerful nations going back to the empires of the Siamese, the Khmer, the Burmans and the Vietnamese. It has long history of bloodshed and vassalhood that continued into the 60's when it was vital 'domino' in American interests in the region. As a result Laos holds the distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. In 1962 a convention in Geneva declared Laos a neutral country, but this did not stop the North Vietnamese as using it as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail or from supplying the Pathet Lao (Laos's VietMinh or Khmer Rouge equivalent). It did not stop the Americans from training and arming the Pathet Lao's rivals or from bombing the areas where North Vietnamese troops were moving troops and supplies. "From 1964 until the ceasefire of February 1973, United States planes flew 580,944 sorties - or 177 a day - over Laos and dropped 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs - equivalent to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes around the clock for nine years."* The effects of that bombing, and of the civil war that ended in 1975 with the Communist Pathet Lao taking power, are still being felt today with still almost two hundred accidents a year attributed to unexploded ordinance.

My hosts have never had a Falang, or foreigner in their home before and I am sure they must have many questions for me.
"Ask me anything you want, I want to tell you anything you want to know about me or my life. I won't consider it rude." When nothing is forthcoming I reiterate that I want them to ask. I am as curious to know what their questions will be, as to their effect on me. The best they can do is to ask how old I am.
"How old do you think I am?" This is something everyone everywhere seems to enjoy guessing and by now I am used to my looks adding five years to their estimates.
"51, the same age as me"
Now I know I am haggard from the days' long journey, have gone five days without a proper shower and ten without a shave, but 51! They think I am almost as old as my father. All I can reply is that perhaps I am blessed for when I am in my 80's, people will admire how vigorous I am for someone well over one hundred.

When one has had enough to eat at the Lao table, one literally bows out. Each of us eventually puts our hands together in the traditional sign of respect, greeting or thanks, gives a small bow and moves back from the table. The leftovers are eventually cleared and the men move back to the circle around the teapot. The women and children quietly reappear but don't join our circle, instead sitting quietly in a corner watching and listening. The Lao-Lao, local whiskey made from fermented rice, continues going around. The host pours a dose from a bottle flavored with roots and a pair of stiff seahorses, and passes it in turn to each of us. After a salute to me, it is downed in one tilt. A few rounds of this has emboldened me and I can no longer refrain,

"What do you think of America and Americans. Please be honest as I want to know the truth." I later thought it a pointless question. Did I really expect them to say something that might insult their guest of honor, thereby making them bad hosts? Still, after much discussion the answer was translated and I would like to believe it was truthful, perhaps because the people in this part of the world are Buddhist and don't feel the need like Christians and Muslims of taking an eye for an eye. He answered quite simply,
"We are very very happy to have you here with us. America and Laos are friends now and all the rest is the past."

~ Nigel

* from Historical Framework, Rough Guide Laos - Jeff Cranmer and Steve Martin. Nov 99



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