Day 18: So after the disappointing river trip and the scheissig border town, I took the public bus back to Luang Namtha, an 8-hour journey through the mountain tops, occasionally looking down on the river from which I had earlier looked up at the road. The scenery was nicer from this altitude: incredibly lush, very jungle-y, green peaks insinuating themselves into clouds, deep drop-offs from the road’s edge, and some climbs that the bus could only do at about half my normal walking pace (and the sound of the driver changing gears was like an elephant stepping down onto pasta pots covered with quahog shells. Various tribeswomen came onboard with their moppets; nor did they worry about seating or personal space, so at one point I had a boy on my lap while the mother pushed against me holding one daughter as the other daughter puked into a sack while sitting on 100lb rice bags in the aisle while the elder son watched from the next bag. Most of the trip I felt like the teacher at a one-room gradeschool. Later we picked up a teenaged girl in make up (rare) and the guys lifted her motoscooter and tied onto the top of the bus. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled. Much better than the soporific river.
Day 19: Today I had planned on biking out to a village and doing a homestay, but I realized this morning I needed a little stasis to chill out and perhaps even get some writing done. I’ve been eating very well, including a majestic bacony-jerky that came with a pure chili dipping sauce, a papaya salad with eggplant and a kind of tongue-numbingly-sour guava, and some kind of conical thing with a spike at the end that looked and tasted like a cross between a bamboo shoot, a palm heart, and an artichoke. (the village food, by the way, was not exceptional, though I love the fact that everything was served with sticky rice that you roll into little balls then use to dip and grab everything else, plus they serve guo, a kind of roasted chili compote, with every meal – yum). Of course I’ve been eating laab/laap with nearly every day (and various versions of the greens every other), and went ahead and got an uncooked one for old time’s sake. I’m holding to my opinion that cooked is better, but glad I reconfirmed. Saw a woman selling a string of tiny baby frogs. Also found a woman selling from a ton of different unmarked bottles of moonshine -- and filling them from plastic gallon oil jugs (new principle, bro?). I asked about the prices of each and settled on the clear one (which cost double what the cheapest did). If you don’t bring your own bottle, they pour it into a plastic bag and rubber band off the top. Love that.
I fear I failed to mention where I’m staying and the rather compromising story behind it. Remember the local guys singing karaoke in the background in the internet café from a post or two ago? Well, I had been spending so much time trying to upload the latest video that I befriended the young proprietor and he asked me back for a beer with them. I happened to be toting the bottle of Chinese hooch, so I went back and did my best to pass it around. They were all terrified of it; I meanwhile was terrified to sing (the only time I ever tried karaoke, I think I was either too nervous or the song was out of my range or both, as no sound came out of my mouth – a flailing my brother still mocks me for). So I said that if they would each drink the whiskey, I’d sing a song in English. Well, they eventually did, so I had to (I didn’t even know the song), and my karaoke cherry got broken, of all places, in what my brother would call a backroom Lao swordfest. How odd.
Anyway, one of the guys’ fathers owns a cheap (but nice) hotel here, so he offered to put me up for free if I’d fix the English on their brochure. Done and done. (it would be nice except there was no cold water this morning, so I had to on/off on/off with the scalding – not pleasant -- and today the electric went out. Oh well).
Just had a 2nd go at "mia" -- the narcotic leaf (I bought some more, as I left the first bag of it with my elder lady friend). I didn’t have the add-ins, so I used the chili dipping sauce that came with the jerky and rolled a smoke with some Lao tobacco I got at the market for a dime. Yum! Honestly, the leaf/chili thing is utterly over the moon. I kept saying wow wow wow while sucking on it. So, so good (and actually I think it goes even better with the pipe tobacco – will try that later).
I’ve decided to stay here for new years eve. There are only a few restaurants on the strip that cater to falang, so it might be a nice focused party. We’ll see. Also it seems like I really did need this day of immobility; I don’t think I was quite aware of how uprooted I can feel. (In retrospect, I arrived in Saigon and never left, went straight to Siem Reap and stayed there 5 days not one, came directly here and will end up spending 6 days not 3 – clearly I like to root. I should keep this in mind with future itineraries.)
So it turns out that the power is out all over town, and with the blackout comes surprisingly limited action, which bodes poorly for new years eve in Namtha. There are a few foreigners milling, but somehow the town stays sleepy; I’m not sure what everybody can be doing; I’m in about the only bar that has its own generator running, but clearly it’s not going to be like the New York brown-out (very good times). I end up talking to a 22yr-old lesbian UGa grad. Sadly, she never had the Andrew Experience.
Day 20: I took a ride today up to a tiny town near the Chinese border. It was rather interesting, as I was the one cracker of the 17 – yes 17 – people in the Toyota van (thus no pictures; I couldn’t reach to my pocket). Saw a few interesting things in addition to some gorgeous scenery: a man sleeping on the road (dogs do that here all the time, equally unaccountably -- is it really that much warmer?); a man flag down the bus by waving at us with a squirrel (upon closer inspection, it was exceptionally furry, with a red belly, and had been snared. One of my river mates explained to me that the reason there are so few birds and wildlife in Asian forests is that they’ve eaten everything); some downed power lines that a large group of men were moving off the road; and lots of hill tribe people in their funky hats/headdresses and polychrome garb (why is it that many of the world’s poorest people wear the most intricately colored and patterned clothes? I realize that having no TV or books leaves a lot of time for weaving, but still…); some hogs with stocks around their heads walking down the side of the road – not sure what the stocks were for. Anyone?
Upon arriving, I get a little frustrated because it’s Sunday, nothing is open, I can’t rent a bike, and, worst of all, no one seems to be eating and there are no stands or stores with covered bowls out front (nice for me because I ask for one then discover what it is after). I don’t want to have to negotiate a menu in Lao, and if they have an English version then I don’t want to eat there (any club that would have me…), so I simply don’t eat. I chew more mia, smoke my pipe, nibble on the leftover papaya salad I brought with me, and wait. Hours of this later, I finally set off on foot, hoping to find something somewhere on the outskirts of town or in the nearby countryside.
Leaving town, within minutes I find another 12-cent noodle (quite odd: a pho with a pink liquid poured over; then you add chili paste and salt; and finally you have the option to add a green liquid too. No idea what any of it was, nor was I so impressed – and why do they overcook the noodles?). Soon thereafter though, the gods grace me and I find a big market where I make quite a scene by sampling and then buying some home-made whiskey with red wood-looking chips sitting at the bottom. Another of the vendors signs “drink that you’ll soon be asleep” to me, and I do a fake stagger walk and everybody’s happy. Then I buy some beautifully bound tea, what I think is a sticky rice that turns out to be grilled pork, another sticky rice that turns out to be some paste with wild mushrooms in it, and a skewer of tiny, grilled, decapitated but otherwise whole birds, wonderfully seasoned, that the woman assures me are chicken hatchlings . I also bend down to sniff some kind of dried grayish vermiginous looking thing that was sitting next to a few bottles homemade whiskey. Everyone started laughing and I now know why: whatever it was, it is not something I will soon be able to un-smell. Eeks.
The pork is super yummy; the mushroom paste less winning; and the birdling poppers not especially crunchy – though with a nice resistance – and positively scrumptious. I return to this market the next day too and get a laab with the black, hairy -on-one-side tripe that I’ve only seen in one other place (anyone?), some outstanding pork jerkey, and then a mystery jerky from a woman who was also selling a grilled rat and one of the super furry squirrels. It cost three times what the other jerkies have cost, so I suspect it must be of something netted or trapped. It’s yummy, but not quite as gamey as I was hoping for. Any guesses?