Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lost in Lao

Lao, beautiful Lao. Adventures in the "land of a million elephants" continues, and as I sit to share and reflect I find myself at a loss for words. ... How do I describe this place?

I'll begin with this: In Muang Sing Ethan and I embarked on a two-day trek through the Nam Ha Nationally Protected Area, a long drag of jungle in the far north of the country. The jungle itself, filled with wide trees, with birdsong, cicadas, leeches and ferns, was so stunning. The lush forest, however would abruptly end and  suddenly we'd be in a clearing, chard, ash-ridden and burned. The local tribes who live in the mountains (mostly Akah people) are exempt from the laws protecting the forest, since they've lived in the forest for years (and long before the NPA was established). To make a living and to fed themselves, they slash-and-burn the forest, clearing the sloping land in order to plant rice. The rice can only be grown on this burned land for one year, after which land is needed. The forest in monsoon season is slick with mud, and we all fell on our butts over and over again while climbing. Our destination? A remote Akah village nestled in the deep jungle. Our translator, Kia, told us about his experience leading tourists through the country while Mong, our guide, cleared the trail with a machete. The trail was terribly overgrown and thick with thorns, weeds and fallen bamboo, all of which tackle. After seven hours, we finally made it to the village.
"It's beautiful here," I said, leaning over the deck off the chief's small wooden abode.
"What's beautiful?" asked Ethan.
"The mountains, the people, the animals everywhere."
"It's easy to romanticize this life," he said, scanning the wood and bamboo homes, the dirt path weaving a muddy trail through the village. We sat and watched women carry water on their shoulders and watched children running after pigs. "The mountains are beautiful," Ethan said, "but I don't envy this life."
There is no plumbing in the village and everybody (about 200 people) shits in the woods surrounding it (a horribly unsanitary practice, especially in the wet season). The women in the village have no say as to whom they marry and have children with. When a man is interested in taking a wife, he has to bribe the chief with whiskey, beer or opium. Then, the women of the village are lined up and the man "picks the one he wants." That's their tradition, and the women never refuse for the shame it would cause their family. The women are so beautiful, with dark, bright eyes and shy smiles. I sat on the porch, while Ethan took pictures, surrounded by women. They looked at me, laughed, gave me a comb for my hair, laughed when I encountered fierce tangles, and showed me their beautiful babies. I cooed and smiled, combed and tried to communicate with my hands. I told them that Ethan and I were together, and they eyed him from afar, smiling. I told them I was grateful to be here, and grateful to see their home.
The wooden houses of the village stand on stilts, and huge-fat pigs, goats, chickens and ducks live below. The Akah people are animalists, and believe that all creatures have a spirit: Mountain spirit, goat spirit, house spirit. The village is marked by two gates, distinguishing the human world from the animal world. Everyone showers outside at a fresh-water source at the edge of the village. The children run free and naked. They were scared of us and ran away when we waved. We slept on a cushion on the floor, breathed in the sour smoke that boiled our water clean and woke sore and exhausted- with another seven-hour journey to go. On our way down the mountain, we encountered a group of people living in the forest, sheltered by only a thin sheet of plastic. "They are workers," Kai told us, pointing to their blades. "They are hired to clear the jungle for rubber-tree farm."
"Rubber-tree farm? Who owns the rubber-tree farm?"
"This land is leased by China," Kai continued, "and China hires these people to cut the forest for rubber tree."
Lao is a Communist country, a one-party ruled nation modeled after Vietnam. Socially, however, the country has close ties to Thailand and to the Buddhist community there. The forest is protected by law, but the law is unenforced. Hunters are prohibited, but we encountered three and heard three gun shots. China's border bleeds into Lao because the Lao government is indebted to China. The people of Lao are caught somewhere in the middle of all this, between law and power, pushed and pulled by a government that doesn't ask for their opinion. As we walked through the forest, through rice fields and across brown-running rivers, we glimpsed the many contradictions and challenges facing this country.
After the trek we ate a huge meal and promptly passed out. The next day we journeyed from Natham and then to Oudomxai. Oudomxai is a strange town. It's filled with elaborate concrete homes, all owned by Chinese construction companies, and is an amazingly unfriendly place. We slept in a horrid guesthouse, woke and left as soon as possible. The journey southeast to Mong Khiaw is set along the Nam Ou River, and nestled between dramatic limestone outcroppings cloaked by clouds. We spent two night there, watching the river roll by, watching clouds condense and rise off the mountains. The river serves many purposes: It's a bathtube where people wash, it's a vital source of food (providing dark catfish, crabs, strange river fish that look alien to me, eels, "seaweed" and much more). The river is also used as a communal trash can. In the early morning, E and I watched as the guesthouse managers dumped trash into the river. Plastic bottles, toilet waste and rubbish galore floats downstream. Out of sight and out of mind. I'm no longer interested in eating river fish. The Nam Ou is beautiful though, and we traveled downstream on a narrow wooden riverboat bound for the Mekong River, and to the historic city of Luang Prabang, where I am writing from now. Luang Prabang is quiet, filled with French-style buildings and guesthouses, lined with palm trees and overlooking the wide Mekong River. We have only just arrived and it's raining. I adore the cool rain, and can't imagine traveling in the hot summer season. Rain, rain, rain, and a rest day...

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