Friday, September 11, 2009

Neil and Yvette in Laos

Sometimes people we're lucky enough to call friends share something that puts into perspective the petty political bickering rife in our nation at the moment...Neil was my daughter's teacher for two years and we remained friends with him and his lovely wife Yvette. Together they've embarked on an incredible journey around the world. At the moment they're in Laos. The story Yvette sent via Facebook this week is one of the most heartbreaking and ultimately joyous stories I've ever had the pleasure to read, and she's kind enough to let me share it with you here. I apologize for getting some of the photos out of order--each one had to be cut and pasted individually. (Something I quickly lose patience with!)

A beautiful blessing ceremony in the little village of Ban Sai, at the corner of the Mekong River and Nam Soh River, looking west into Myanmar. The four big-men of the village including the chief—all apparently thoughtful, serious, considerate, careful, responsible, family men—each came around and tied little strings around our wrists while very respectfully chanting blessings about our good journey and good health, and then drank lots of lao lao (rice whiskey) on our behalf. The ceremony was in the home a very kind family where we slept, they were so careful and eager to make us comfortable, with many smiles, veggie food (bamboo shoot/chili soup, egg and rice nicely laid out in clean dishes on a banana-leaf-lined little bamboo table), and clean, comfy beds, and gentle massages for our exhausted bodies by beautifully dressed Tai-Lu young women from the village.

Bathing in the smaller river, including being joined by 5-6 young boy monks; though I still haven’t mastered bathing gracefully in a sarong. Feeling clean was awesome, woulda’ done it with the whole village watching if I had to. The river was fast, cool, perfectly-sized, with lots of rocks to make for non-muddy bathing.

· Though miserable, the fact that it rained on us much of the second day was also a blessing as it kept us from getting hot as we trudged up from the Mekong thru beautiful views, rice fields (lined with cucumber vines, pumpkin vines, sesame plants, etc.)—up a 1500-meter high mountain, then back down, then back up—finally reaching Ban Eurla (an Akha village) for our second night.

· Though not necessarily pleasant, we had many observations of how challenged this village is—school building run down, teacher “not yet arrived” (empty house also waiting for him/her). What seems dirtiness to us—the village itself, the homes (at least where we stayed), the dishes, the furniture, the children. Lucky for this village, their water at least seems pretty clean from a village stream. Chief was away on business, we were hosted by his family including his very-addicted father (we think?), and kid-brother (16 years old—and one of the very few in the village who speaks Lao). Are the challenges because of Akha culture? Poverty? A dysfunctional chief’s family? Bad air from Vientianne (300 miles south), as one family believes and shared with us? Or perhaps not enough sacrificed chickens, pigs, cows, water buffalo? Or the secret war that pillaged this country 30 years ago in the USA’s seemingly-ill-advised effort to combat the Red Threat? Or the opium that has been, in some way, a focus of political and economic attention in this region for centuries? Or just “fate”? Who knows . . . regardless of causal elements, depressing.
· Again—bathing at the stream, this time under the bamboo aqueduct (powerful force!!). Then dry clothes (woo-hoo!!) and warming up/drying off by the cozy fire in the Naiban’s house.

· Baby dogs, baby pigs, baby cats, baby pigs, baby chickens, baby humans, exuberant children, lots of swings erected—seemingly one of the bigger past-times for kids and adults. And a way to be out of the collective mud/poop/garbage/run-off of the village. . .
· Hearing the story of the addicted man—despite his condition (which is how it seems to be viewed), he is seemingly an influential man in the village. A former soldier who was injured by a land mine with a long scar on his leg to prove it, he gets K400,000 ($50) /month, allowing him to support his habit and his large family of two wives and nine children in style in the village and also to have his opium without police interference (despite no school for his children). His two wives were among the most dignified beautiful grandmothers, with lots of smiles, laughter, tolerance for the children (including lots of pee puddles). Then having a very PAINFUL massage by the chief's bare-breasted daughter, a 20-year-old mother of two with quite a grip.

· That the mother of the sick baby trusted us enough and was able to comfortably decide to come with us even without her husband to consult with. Observing her beautiful smile for the baby, her tender care of him, and her uncomplaining perseverance as she carried the child 5 hours on foot, and held him for 5 hours in a tractor ride—including pre-chewing his rice, breast-feeding while hiking (!!), and giving him water out of the grubby-soda-bottle-turned-water-bottle cap.

· That the 16-year-old brother who also came with us survived the hike without incident despite his respiratory infection—causing difficulty breathing, lots of coughing and hawking (a farovite national past time even in normal times). Plus sore toes from his flip flops (eventually opting for barefoot and then Neil’s Teva’s—which he swam in but which protected his feet).

· Not a positive highlight, but we all were tasty to the leeches—I think only Neil and I were persistently grossed-out by them. We pulled off probably 20-30 of them from our shoes, socks, legs, feet, of which 5-6 had managed to connect to Neil (none to me). We’ve finally found the critter that likes Neil’s blood better than mine!!
· Imagining seeing the town thru the eyes of mom and brother, as we approached the Muang Sing valley at tractor-speed from high in the mountains, and increasingly saw bicycles, trucks, shops, lights, televisions in the shop fronts, and finally the very-bright-lights of the white-tiled hospital. With a television in the waiting room.

· On arrival at the hospital here in Muang Sing, quick attention by the medical team. Although a very scant exam, within an hour they’d given the baby oral antibiotics, and anti-allergenic/anti-itch/sedative, and multivitamins. And started an IV drip plus IV-push antibiotics on the boy. Our guide, Ko, pictured here in the hospital with Neil, helped us to ensure the family was well-settled. Most poignant moment was when the staff asked mom to remove the baby’s beautiful hat. I had noted that she carefully kept the baby’s head covered even the evening before in the village, so had a gut feeling that what was under the hat wasn’t good. Indeed. Lots of impressive scabs and sores on the baby’s head—leading both mother and brother to tears.

And yes, it was very good, finally around 8:30pm, to eat a large bowl of noodle/egg/tomato/peanut soup made by the lovely, gracious Chinese lady who gets that we’re vegetarian and lets us come into her kitchen and select our ingredients every time we eat there. Plus lots of cold Fanta and water. And then home to the guest house for long hot showers, clean clothes, and “our own” (well, sorta) bed.

Friday morning we’ll be taken to the bus station around 7am by some of the young people Neil’s been working with. Quite a send-off it’ll be, I think. Love to all, we’re getting a lot of it here.

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