Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bolaven plateau and homestay: part 2

That evening we arrived in the rural Lao village where we were to spend the night, after navigating some of the worst roads I have ever seen. They were so flooded and full of holes and ruts I thought for sure we would have to get out and push, but Aot is a fantastic driver and we never got stuck. Add to this any number of water buffalo, little kids, stray dogs, pigs, and chickens and you can imaging how hard it would be to drive on those roads. I can assure you we held on for dear life in the back to keep from flying up and hitting our heads on the top cover of the sawngthaew.

When we booked our 2 day tour with Green Discovery eco-tours in Paske (and I cannot say enough good things about Green Discovery, I highly recommend using them if you are in Laos, and from the Pakse office you can request Udon or Aot as your guide) The traditional trip had us staying in a guest house. I asked if we could do a homestay in a village instead and the office manager, who was also wonderful, said he would call around and see what he could do, even though that wasn't the way the package was planned. When we got to the village, Udon explained that we would be staying with the uncle of the office manager. He had put us up with his own family! This was beyond generous and cool. Everyone in the village is a coffee farmer (at least for one job, it seems everyone in Laos has at least 2 jobs) and they had only had one other group of falang spend the night in the village, ever. The previous group had been all women so Isaac and Fredrick were the first male falong to ever stay in the village. Ever, people. When we arrived Udon told us that since coffee bean harvesting had just begun the previous day, all of the heads of the households had all gathered for a day long meeting to discuss the harvest, and to celebrate drinking beerlao and lao-lao (rice whiskey moonshine, tastes like Awamore from Okinawa, anywhere from 40 proof to make-you-blind proof) since the morning. Needless to say the atmosphere was festive and friendly. the house was built on stilts with a kitchen, communal room, 3 bedrooms and electricity. The bathroom is outside and consists of a squat toilet (everywhere in Laos) and a large tub of rain water and a bucket to pour the water over yourself to bathe. we all took turns bathing and let's just say it was brisk, to say the least, since the sun was almost down and the Bolaven plateau is cooler anyways. I would say it was in the low 80s upper 70s at that point. The bathing was an interesting experience and I'm glad for it since that's how much of the world bathes. Still, I wouldn't voluntarily give up my nice hot showers when they are available!

They were out of beerlao so they sent someone to get more (on the awful roads, in the rain, no less!) and then Udon said he had a surprise for us. He had been telling us since our tour the previous day that we were special to him, friends now, and he had a surprise for us.

The surprise turned out to be a baasii ceremony, which every Lao person (we were in a Lao village, not a minority village) has before or after a trip, during a wedding, when they are very ill, or other special occasions. They were doing it for us as their special guests, and this village had never done it for falang before.The ceremony was beautiful, moving, and very special for all of us. it was a big honor and it's hard to put into words but I will try to condense it for you. The ceremony consists of the head of the village making a long speech calling our Khwan, or guardian spirits, back to us if they have wandered away because we will need them to protect us on our journey. White cotton strings are placed around a stupa-like arrangement of banana leaves, rice, lao lao, candles, and water. All the adult villagers who were present (maybe 10-15) reach in, touch the arraignment, say something in unison, and take the strings. then they one by one come over to the 4 of us, and Udon and Aot also, and tie the strings around our wrists while wishing us well. the strings stay on for 3 days to bind the guardian spirits to you and then need to be untied, not cut. After that it gets even more festive and we pass around a cup of beerlao that we keep refilling and all drink from, with everyone encouraging whomever is pouring to give the fullest glasses to whomever is already drunk, or whomever is saying they shouldn't have any more, naturally. I guess some things are universal. And keep in mind most of these guys had already been drinking all day during their meeting. Festive! Udon and Aot taught us some Lao drinking toasts and we all talked about our lives and families and got to know each other better, while Thai soap operas and Lao music videos played on the TV. From what we have seen of Laos even the poorest huts have satellite dishes. Everyone likes their TV! The villagers seemed especially interested in what the weather was like where we are from, and what we thought of Lao weather. Natural I suppose, seeing as how they are farmers. The more beerlao that was drunk the more it seemed that that everyone forgot we can't speak Lao so I had some people trying to ask me these questions directly and I had to run over and grab Udon or Aot to translate! Dinner was, as usual, delicious. The men all slept in the communal room, the Lao women slept in the 2 childrens' bedrooms, and Kat and I were given the nicest sleeping room, the parents' bedroom. When we got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet (which is outside of the main house) the stars were incredible (Isaac saw a shooting star when he went to pee). Apparently, that's when Kat got her first leech, although we didn't know it until the rooster woke us up at dawn. Next up: leeches in Laos!


Lisa said...

Your stories of taking pictures of the kids (previous post) and the roads here- amazing drivers and hanging on for dear life- remind me of Kenya.

The ceremony and your stay in the village sound amazing. What a wonderful experience!
People's hospitality and generosity never fail to amaze me!

Donald said...