Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Post 18: I fear somewhat lame after the last

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?


  1. The Cormac McCarthy quote you want is from Outer Dark -- granting it’s not a quotable, and I'm posting to the wrong thread, but since you're talking about mystery jerky, which is not to be confused with activities associated with finesse tuning into clarity scrambled broadcast porn in the 80s, I say, Why not?:

    The bearded one looked toward them and Holme looked at the pan of meat again.

    Help yourself to some meat there if you’re hungry, the man said.

    What kind is it?

    The man didn’t answer.

    He laid the shirt across his knees, reached gingerly and took a piece of the blackened meat from the pan and bit into it. It had the consistency of whang, was dusted with ash, tasted of sulphur. He tore off a bite and began chewing, his jaws working in a hopeless circular motion.

    The bearded one nodded. And a rider, he said.

    A what? Holme said.

    A rider


    Ah, he said.

    Old crazy horse like to of killed me, Holme said. Whatever it was had swollen in his mouth and taken on a pulpy feel warped and run with unassailable fibers. He chewed.

    Where was it you was headed? the man said.

    He worked the clot of meat into one cheek. I was just crossin the river, he said. I wasn’t headed no place special.

    No place special.


    Ah, the man said.

    Holme chewed. I don’t believe I ever et no meat of this kind, he said.

    I ain’t sure I ever did either, the man said.

    He stopped. You ain’t et none of this? he said.

  2. someday i'll do a little research to help me recall exactly all the rodents listed in a "do you eat this?" conversation between two old male baggers at the supermarket. as far as i can tell, if it it walked or crawled (clint) they ate it.

  3. At long last, I comment. A preface or two first. Bro, your posts have grown in length. That's a problem for me as each of them now represent the longest thing I've ever read (I remember in college realizing how long the Cliff's Notes actually were and deciding not to bother). Blackberry sucks the fat one. You can read other comments but cannot post a fucking comment. Hillary's new iPhone is worse - all thumbs is an understatement when I try to type of that thing. That, combined with post length, chaos at work, and a birth in family has delayed my comments. Not for lack of interest - that's for sure. The final preface is that I fear my comments to this and other posts I have just now caught up with will be long. Clearly there was much to tell from your end. Not much romance or symbolism (both of which cause my interest to drift) so I have plenty to comment on. Here goes...

    I took notes on this one since I read it while Hillary was being induced. I think she threw away the notes. Or maybe I did but I'll forever blame her. So these comments may be incomplete. You can blame her too.

    A note to Andrew - do all medievalists quote literature? It's really boring to non-medievalists, even if it is by Cormac McCarthy and about jerky. It's even worse when Jack does it verbally.

    Hillary and I thought the Nah Trang boat trip (that was supposed to have plenty of chad on it but did not) sucked but I did enjoy floating in the river drinking bottles of some strange booze. Insert cork and they will float too - provided you drank enough already. I feel your pain on the river trip. I fear that they always have an always will suck unless you are able to be on the boat looking for Col. Kurtz.

    "The sound of the driver changing gears was like an elephant stepping down onto pasta pots covered with quahog shells" reminds me of the Polish guy on the overnight train whose breath was enough to melt iron. Very different but the analogy feels the same to me. Nice work.

    No surprise but you are a braver man than I. After seeing the public bus sardine canned on the side with dead people everywhere (no cops or paramedics of course) in Vietnam, I realized I'd never ride a third world public bus. The bag of barf is a nice touch. Reminds me of Tart Bart at UVM. Remember him? The sticky serpent?

    I'm glad you reconfirmed the obvious regarding cooked laab. Money well spent.

    Moonshine in oil jugs? Mystery jerky? Sounds like a little slice of heaven. You can also find those things (always sold together, I'm sure) in Montana. Out there the "mystery" is likely to be cougar. My guess for yours? Possom. It's nice to know that you can get back in touch your back-ass redneck roots (think Fisher, IL) on the other side of the world. The international language of scud has moonshine and jerky at the top of the vocabulary list. By the way - the plastic bag of hooch with a rubber band is very classy. they should put a dead anchovy in it just for the effect.

    This next part is hard for me to comment on. Your karaoke skills are not good. The fact that you were offered a free room in some sketchy hotel after the karaoke sausage fest with a bunch of strangers only has one response: Gregorio. It's okay. You're still by bro and I love you. Your secret is safe with me.

    Mia? Do you smoke that shit or just chew it? I'm sure you explained in previous posts but I can't remember whether that was the shit you smoke or if that was something else. Is the chili dipper like Sambal Olek?

    You're the only person in NYC that enjoyed the brownout. Not sure if you've registered that yet. Good to be unemployed.

    Stocks on the hogs are necessary when random dudes are trying to sell dead squirrels. It's harder for him to snatch the pair than if it's just one. Reminds me of the sketchy scud who tried to sell me the dripping dog head (or was it a wolf?) in Peru. Not necessarily a popular souvenir.

    PETA would be proud of your hatchling consumption. Classy.

    You always write paragraphs of description about chics and landscape. I want more detail on the smell you won't soon forget. Sounds horrible but i need more.

    Black, hairy -on-one-side tripe? Oh yeah. Halo-halo for sure. That was the least likely thing we would have expected at the Chinese restaurant Grambus and Wally liked in Morton Grove! I remember how bad it was in the restaurant but you thought it would be a good idea to get a doggie bag. It aged as well as barf in the hot sun.

    Do I like it?...

  4. ha ha. awesome. latest word on the hairy tripe is that it was probably water buffalo.

    writing danny and gregorio now to see if they'll go in on a home karaoke machine and inflatable hot tub.