Post 16: In which nostalgia rears its ugly, and curious leaves are chewed in curious company
sorry this is coming in a day later than announced; the power went out for a day, and i went to a village up by the chinese border that didn't have connectivity. and sorry too about there being so few photos; i'll try to put up a few more from the gazillion that i took, if there's bandwidth.
and back tomorrow with the next video, which i hope is what you've all been waiting for.
much love, and missing you all (i'm starting to feel very sentimental writing these because i can feel you all very close. oh my...)
Day 14: Arrive in Laos.
Laos, like Illinois, has a silent “s”; you would think that would help me get it right.
First meal and it utterly blows me away, not unlike the first time I ate Lao food, which was in Providence, at an extremely dingy spot I stumbled upon called Asia Place. -- RECYCLED STORY ALERT – 4 PARAGRAPHS -- Asia Place was funny; it was up the street (on Federal hill) from a bar I’d occasionally schlep to because they had a 3 burgers and beans special that came with a stack of white bread and cocktails were $1. At the time I was working at Louie’s, a notorious greasiest-of-spoons by campus, and my boss happened to own the building Asia Place was in. “You eat there?” he asked incredulously. “That place is way too filthy for me.” This from the owner of a place where one of my patrons found a 5-inch rusty nail under her omelette (no exaggeration), and Louie wouldn’t give her her breakfast for free, he was just going to make another one (that’s when I quit). It was sad to go; they took me in as one of theirs (even though I was over 5’6”). I had endeared myself to the family by jumping into the trash barrel on my first day, holding it by both sides and pogoing up and down to mash everything to the bottom – a trick I had learned at my last job.
Anyway, Asia Place never had any patrons, or at least never anyone eating; every once in a while, a small group of young Southeast Asian mobsters would come in and drink Heinekens (see!) or egg creams (for real). The place was run by a mother and her two daughters, each of whom had butt length hair with curlicue wavelets curled in. They wore a lot of makeup and were very pretty, and one time the mother asked if I had ever been to South East Asia. I said I had been to Thailand on route to India. She said, “No, you went for the girls.” I said, no, it was a stopover for 2 days because I was flying the wrong way around the world (this when I was 18). She said, no, you went for the girls, and I couldn’t convince her otherwise, snow-white lamb though I was at the time.
The other amusing thing about Asia Place is that the menu had names and explanations for most things, but then it just said Laab, $5. I didn’t even bother asking, I just ordered it, and that’s when I was first asked cooked or uncooked. Trying to be cool, I said cooked, like I had any idea what I was getting. It came; I couldn’t identify it; it was some kind of meat salad with lettuce and a few chilis. I proceeded to go back and eat it the next eight nights in a row, getting it raw on the last. This was before the internet, so it wasn’t easy to find out what the very thin slices of seemingly filter-y meat were; I thought maybe fish maw (something I had read about but never seen, and the stuff on my plate looked like it could strain plankton). Finally, after eating it raw (and being both compelled and alarmed), I asked what it was: beef stomach sliced so thin you couldn’t tell. Utterly incredible. But better get it cooked, every time but once.
The woman there enjoyed toying with me, not just with the Thai girl joke. The first time I ate the laab, I left the plate spotless and the stem of the lone fresh Thai chili in the center to show that I had eaten it. The next night, I left the two stems. The night after, four. I like to do the powers of two in my head to calm myself; I knew how quickly this could get out of hand. The fourth night I gave up. _She_ knew I was white – and how to break me.
BACK TO LAOS: So sauntering to the night market, I honestly had no idea what I’d find. There are quite a few honkies here, all preparing for boat trips or treks, and I feared seeing waffles and spaghetti. But no, there was laab! (though I think most books spell it laap.) On my first night! And just as good as I remembered! (I haven’t been to providence in 10 years). Plus an astonishingly good mound of mixed greens, then a less dazzling noodle (called elau, iilau, not sure how to spell it -- pronounced ee-lao) made by pouring a liquid on a screen over boiling water, steaming it, then rolling it on a stick (a little like the shrimp noodle that ron, lindz, my brother and I all love in chinatown where they pour it on a hot metal surface then scrape it into a steamed roll). That was more cool than tasty. The laab and greens though annihilated anything I’ve had yet in Asia. (Sorry, ron, maybe I didn’t give Cambodian food a chance, but if you’re competing with laab, the cards are stacked against you…)
The town I’m in is called Luang Namtha (I dropped $100 and flew straight here in an hour upon arriving at the capital instead of taking the when-all-goes-well 19-hour bus for $20). The 2007 guidebooks all said there was only generator-driven power, and only from 6-9:30 p.m. Well, I think they had a good 2008, because there are power lines everywhere, my room has a plug, plus a flush toilet and shower (it seems it can’t be escaped, at least not without going to the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet and good luck getting a room).
Now that I’m up here, I’m reluctant to just take a boat all the way back down as planned; I think I’m going to rent a bike instead and go visit a bunch of hill villages of various Lao ethnic minorities (the Hmong among them – had to say it). They’ll all be ready for me when I get there, but maybe I can still eat some funky things and make some children laugh. And then I can come home to laab (and the laab lady – uh oh, I might be smitten again! –RECYCLED STORY ALERT – REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH -- I will confess to historically being captivated by any number of women whom I referred to as the insert food name here lady. My favorite was the produce lady in Florence – a young Sophia Loren meets La Cucinotta – good god it’s hard even to type the words!!! -- who called me “cipolla” because I’d go in every day and buy a single onion just to have the chance to see her. Oh, yes, then there was the rural cheese lady in Paris with the gap between her front teeth who would bring her masterpieces in sitting on maple leaves and threatening either to ooze over the edge or collapse in on themselves with mold. And so on…).
Clearly there is a disadvantage to flying, because all I can really talk about so far is that if you first saw the earth from above Laos you’d think we were all living on a giant head of broccoli rabe. I guess I can also say that so far it looks like Cambodia, but as busses they drive these pickupy things with two rows of seats bolted into the bed called sawngthaews, and there’s also a super crazy truck with a leafblower engine strapped out front powering the thing PIC. (Or I could tell you about clouds, but don’t get me started. I LOVE clouds viewed from a plane…). So, yes, if I fly, then you’re stuck hearing ossified food stories from the past. My bad. I’ll try to stick to the program and go ground from now on.
Day 15: My first day here I rent a bike and go out to see some villages. Quickly one of my suspicions was confirmed, namely, that if you don’t eat the local food, you really don’t interact with the populace. As I was biking by, saying hi to everyone, they were like “Fuck you, whatever.” But the minute I sat down to eat both a 12-cent noodle thing (PIC) and another noodle thing (PIC) – the latter at an end-of-the-road village where I couldn’t ford the river -- suddenly crowds formed, we all tried speaking to each other, and all kinds of stuff happened. One can waterbug the surface of a culture, but to pierce the meniscus, you have to eat.
Or drink. As it turns out, I bought two different local rice whiskeys, and a Chinese one (by mistake). The first because I rode by a stand at a somewhat remote village and there were small bags of liquid with rather high prices on them (close to a buck), one clearish, one reddish brown (slightly more expensive). The proprietor was asleep, and I’m not sure how I would have asked him anyway, so I concluded they must be booze, woke him up, and bought the latter (go high in low-end). It turned out to be half a liter of really smooth 40% eau de vie-like stuff, tasting a bit like the Chinese preserved-plum-infused vodka that I make at home, only smoother. Very nice.
The second I bought because I kept riding by stands that had unmarked bottles of clear or green liquid on them, stoppered with rag bits and rubber-banded. At first I thought they might be petrol, as in Cambodia, but I concluded that no, maybe not. So I pulled into one of the stands, made the universal I-can-imbibe-this-without-dying sign, got a nod back, and bought half a liter. (you had to bring your own bottle, so I took my water bottle out of its bike cage, drained it, and handed it to her – classy). I opted for the light green one, which proved also to be quite tasty. A bit less smooth, but good.
The third was a minor mistake. I had meant to try the clear one that I had seen elsewhere, but I had no empty bottle any more. Next to it, at one of the stands, they had little glass bottles of 250ml that they said were 40 cents, so I got one, only to look at it later and realize that it had Chinese written on it. Still tasty, but not local. I’m getting on the boat tomorrow, so it won’t be bad to have excess liquor – and also for the truck ride back. I’m sure the driver will appreciate it.
I did feel I got a little local cred today when hiking up to a supremely disappointing “waterfall” by turning my flipflops into Tevas with strung-together rubber bands, creating a little back resistance and stability. It worked great (I conceived of it last night in bed), and made hiking in those god-forsaken things actually doable. Plus, lots of people stared at them, at least with a little appreciation.
Day 16: So I came all the way up here because I had booked a trip with court along what was supposed to be the last unused river in Laos, deep into the remote North. Well, my supposed “jungle adventure” proved to be a near bust. The river was rarely narrower than 50 yards; there were villages alongside it every couple of miles (whose children waved at us but whose adults didn’t give a shit); the boat had an engine that wasn’t especially quiet or peaceful; and after about an hour, one got to know the scenery and it didn’t change much for the next 14 hours spent on the boat over two days. The boat, apart from the motor, was an authentic pieced-together wooden fantail, which meant it was highly uncomfortable to sit in the bottom of, as we did, and looked like a single termite could Titanic us at will. There were good parts: we stopped over in one village where everyone came out to see us . Plus, we spent the night in the young boat pilot’s village, and that proved to be the best part of the trip (and almost made it worth it).
Day 16, evening: First village overnight: So there were tons of interesting details about staying in the village, and when I can finally post pictures, you’ll see, among other things, the water buffalo, the green pumpkins they grow for pig feed, the bamboo shoot hanging in bags under the stilted huts, the stilted huts, the silk spinning apparatus and intricate looms, the kids, the cookfires, the cookpots, and the cooking (the cook wouldn’t let me take her picture).
Now of course we’re herded in there as falang (whities), so everyone starts coming around to sell us sarongs and scarves, which annoys me. But eventually things mellow out, and that’s when I pull out the lao lao whiskey I had bought in the village near Luang Namtha. It soon becomes clear that this makes me very popular among the men, especially the old men (though the one who I thought was probably 70 tells me he’s only 53 – eeks. Hard living, as in real work: it catches up fast.).
But I had also brought a bag of some leaves in liquid that I saw at another village. These my guide said were to be rolled with ginger, salt, and hot chilis, then sucked on while smoking, as a kind of stimulant. A stimulant to go with a stimulant, hell yeah! So with the whiskey, I pull out the (what at first I assume are coca leaves), and attract the super old lady’s attention (I think she’s pushing ninety but she says she’s 60-something, and has the teeth one seeks in a food vendor). She’s been chewing on a unlit cheroot or big beedie of some kind (like ones I’ve seen from Indonesia), and starts making drinking signs too, so I hand her a glass of whiskey, see her take a swig, then lean all the way to the ground and blow it all through a crack in the floorboards. She hated it! But then she takes a Carlton Fisk wad of the leaves and fires up her Clint Eastwood special, flashes me her crenellated grin, and now we’re fast friends.
It was kind of sad, as if the other 3 falang just faded from the room. We’re drinking and chewing and smoking (I pulled out my pipe and fired up some nice Dunhill 505), and the whole scene becomes _very_ convivial. (the leaves, by the way, taste almost olive-y, and the combo of leaf, salt, chili, ginger is delicious on its own, but does an Aufhebung into something utterly magical with the synergism of the tobacco). Soon enough the old lady asks if I’m married and I say no, and yes, indeed, she suggests her youngest, only 19, the sweet-faced cook who wouldn’t let me take her picture (but I did get one of her hair later in the boat).
So I end with an addendum to the summer-toothed-old-lady-soup principle: whenever one can drink, smoke, and chew narcotic leaves with said ancienne, one must.