Arrivals and imminent departures: six months in Laos.

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October 15th 2020
Published: October 15th 2020
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Which country has the most festivals? With its seemingly endless number of Hindu deities, not to mention the mélange of other religions, I’d have guessed India. However, the Philippines – almost exclusively Christian (predominantly Catholic) - purportedly celebrates some 42,000 all-be-they, typically, at a local village level. And why do I ponder the like? Because Buddhist Laos itself has very many indeed. Only days after our last it was time to knock up some prayer boats. The official festival of light occurs on October 3rd, but our little wat was encouraging their launching in early September.

Moo, Hoi and Pancake were a hive of activity assembled around various structural elements of our old perennial herb friend, the banana. The body of the “boat” is a three inch cross-section of what we’d consider to be the trunk, although bananas don’t have a trunk – they have complex layers of leaf-sheaths, a pseudostem. Pinned (toothpicks), stapled or nailed (the latter two options far from eco-friendly) onto the body are folded or rolled strips of banana leaf; the ultimate assemblage typically resembling something akin to a lotus flower, although far more towering and ornate variations are common. Inside this construction are added flower heads, incense sticks and candles – the last two lit just prior to their brief voyage: there are rapids around the bend (a veritable rusty nail graveyard I’d venture).

Personally our efforts were…. poor. Evidently they were deemed unworthy of the auspicious occasion as, with the hallowed hour upon us, they mysteriously disappeared and we were provisioned with two “superior” examples.

Madam Namphun launched ours and propitiously they sailed along together in a short-lived harmony.

There was a football match. The farang and those associated with Palomi guesthouse challenged the not so distant technical college to a game. Miserably, I could not play; a potential injury to my much operated on dicky knee - given the current circumstances - precluded all temptation. That said, like our German team member I would have had to play barefoot, whilst our French and Spanish players were in trainers. Many of the opposition sported, really rather un-sportingly, football boots. Of course it had been raining, the uneven ground was as slippery as hell, whilst the near touchline resembled a boggy swamp. Nevertheless it was also roasting, our guys were actually grateful to be playing in “skins” (no Laura, they weren’t totally naked). The girls, Nathan (foot injury), the subs and I sat in the shade with a stash of cold beers. This was never going to be a display of great finesse, although with time up, the score at four each and a golden goal required before the sun fully set, it was exciting. Much to the farangs’ delight Juan nabbed the winner and it was rapidly back in the school bus for apnams (showers) before Palomi (Poh and Tim) provided all with a free boozy feast.

We call it “keepie-uppie” but the Lao have a competitive, net-incorporating variant, kataw. It’s played with a rattan ball (although, given the chance, equally with a leather football) with the object being for it to touch ground in the opposition’s territory… think volleyball. Although here anything other than hands/arms may be used to return the ball. Kita, our eldest, is a particularly skilled practitioner performing acrobatic aerial volleys and leaping sole-of-foot smashes. Judging this marginally less likely to result in expensive pain (they’d be no overhead kicks from me) I joined German Thomas in challenging two weedy looking pre-pubescents. We lost, convincingly…

The bacon (more akin to pancetta - perfect for its intended carbonara usage) arrived and then, serendipitously, we discovered an unopened 5L wine box of merlot in a fridge and so a second pasta dish with both pancetta and prawns in a spicy wine-laden and coriander-infused tomato reduction was conceived. At least a litre of the rare red nectar – very Floyd-like – accompanied the cooking process. Our donated mini plates to the extended family met with mixed reactions: Pon was terrified at the prospect of calorie-laden cheese, she’d try but a mouthful of carbonara (err, but sticky rice is waistline hell); Pancake adored the spicy rich prawns; whilst Khamla and pasta-loving Kita, were, respectively, nonplussed and wowed by both.

The subsequent evening saw the farang descend to polish off the remaining wine.

With our infiltration of the kitchen established we took to cooking more of our own meals: Pon and cook Moo being more than happy for us to make free with the facilities. The limitation here - forget the fanciful luxury of an oven - is that they are currently gas-less and so all cooking is consequently being performed over charcoal-fed clay crucibles that makes temperature regulation seriously problematic. Nevertheless, you can buy a kilo of chicken breasts for little more than two dollars in the market, wonderful pork and prawns in Salavan, often potatoes (who’d think mash would seem so decadent; whilst, hugely importantly, Martin has five kilos of butter that he keeps letting us buy smidgens of), and we even discovered a cumin-heavy Indian style seasoning for curries. Thus we provided a sack of charcoal a week to contribute to fuel costs.

Meanwhile, Martin had started baking; and a dab hand he is. Bizarrely, although bread is popular, there’s no local bakery... Yet. There may well be if the chief gives a thumbs-up to this potential venture.

Martin and Mathilde (M&M) had also arranged for a cheese delivery, a weighty three kilos of blue, runny-centred Burrata mozzarella and feta; plus, their return from a jaunt down south also saw the arrival of another wine box. With such bounty they held a magnificent cheese and wine based evening, although hunks of his rustic bread merely dipped in olive oil alone were pure heaven.

As September progressed it became ever more apparent that Pak Dam’s mum, Lucy, was indeed once again pregnant. Sadly she had also begun scratching in earnest. Pak Dam himself was now fully restored to health and his once patchy coat totally, lustrously, regrown. Of course we should have considered the potential for him to infect her and now in her immunocompromised state she was succumbing. Fortunately we still had 6ml of Ivermectin remaining and its usage has no adverse effects on pregnant mums nor developing pups. Thus, re-armed with more syringes and needles (the local pharmacy didn’t bat an eye at such a request), she started on a series of jabs. We also provisioned Pak Dam with an additional, belt and braces (was it possible that he had now been re-infected?), couple of shots.

And then there was an announcement: renewed pressure had persuaded Envoy to provide another – the first in months – repatriation charter flight from Laos to Frankfurt on the 1st of October. Most of Tad Lo’s remaining westerners, several running very low on funds, Nathan in need of returning to his job, and others merely keen to head home after six months of entrapment, booked. There would now be 200-odd leavers descending on Vientiane in preparation for the off, just as we were finally planning on going walk-about. No doubt there would be a re-jig to the amazing bargain hostel prices that had recently been on offer.

On the 17th of September we heard news of a mighty storm heading westwards from Vietnam, with heavy rain forecast across several days. That night it did indeed start raining and so it continued, unabated and violently, throughout the night. Pak Dam and Lucy were forced from our balcony to dryer environs. The following morning the river was up but not markedly, yet still it poured and then at 10am they opened the dams, literally. In an hour the river had risen several feet, advancing to directly beneath our balcony. By midday it was up a further meter, now only five feet shy of our feet.

The women folk and children were out once again in the flooded margins armed with their shrimp nets. A number of the elder ladies sucked on huge self-rolled cheroots, whilst some, peculiarly, fully clothed in the waist-deep water, brandished umbrellas.

Then Phuang appeared and announced that maybe we should consider relocating to the more elevated main building (the thought had occurred to us), indeed to the second floor. As we packed so everyone at Sipasert began clearing rooms: beds were stripped and furniture removed, whilst mattresses were piled atop tables themselves now atop bed frames. Pick-ups began to arrive and valuables loaded – the family were decamping to higher ground: to Mario’s house on the village outskirts, before the roads became impassable. It was envisaged that Sipasert might soon become cut off. Us and dogs aside, only Pon would remain for the night.

Ensconced in our lofty room, and with all other possible precautions taken, we went for a wander over to Tad Hung to view developments up close. Holy shit. Above the falls our placid little river was a raging buckerooing torrent, islands were submerged and the falls themselves, now merely a great fold in the thrust, deafening. Returning, we bumped into a neighbour who speaks a little English. His stilted property, albeit set back further from the river, was already totally encircled by the onslaught. He wished us well and hoped that Sipasert wouldn’t be washed away..??? We, totally, concurred.

There was nothing else to do but grab a beer and watch as the water climbed steadily higher – hell, the electricity was predicted to die at any moment and it might prove to be our only chilled one for the foreseeable.

Fortunately, unlike last year, there was a reprieve: late afternoon the rain eased and then stopped and our balcony was never quite breeched. With the water retreating, the following morning we asked if we might move back to our old room. Pon was astonished – she was inviting us to stay on in one of her most expensive air-conned rooms at no additional cost yet we wanted to return to her cheapest? Farang are strange.

The October 1st charter failed to obtain Lao government permission and was cancelled; it did, however, prompt a cluster of similar flights, all chaotically organized and their prices universally moaned about: one on the 11th, two on the 18th and a further on the 20th of October: some 800 – who knew there were still so many of us in Laos – would be exiting. Personally, looking at the UK’s burgeoning second wave, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay on. In all likelihood we’ll be here well into the New Year. Back in March we’d mentally prepared for a lengthy stay, but twelve months certainly wasn’t envisaged.

And how have we found living in a communist country, admittedly an almost exclusively Bhuddist communist country (which does seem somewhat of a dichotomy)? Well… Really, on many levels, who’d know it was thus? Capitalism is positively encouraged, anyone can start a business; there are no health and safety regulations or hindering bureaucracy to restrict low-cost start-ups. Nevertheless, certainly rurally, you do require local popular support; if you have the OK from the chief and the village council then all should proceed smoothly. There again for a non-Laos it is markedly different: we cannot own land, not even a minority holding. We recently met a young German woman who works in Vientiane as a banking development specialist – her team are here to train Lao individuals to run/establish banks to provide savings/loans services to the local people. Many of these are supposed cooperatives that – you’d think – should have the customers’ backs: helping the people to help themselves. Yet our insider knowledge doesn’t paint such an altruistic picture. Loans are seemingly always interest-only repayment (at scary rates) and come term the borrower is often horrified to discover that they must now pay back the entirety of the initial capital. We’ve heard of several who’ve not had the foresight (were not briefed) to prepare for this inevitable eventuality. And then there are the police. These, I believe, much like in democratic capitalistic India (and many other countries), have to buy their way into service and (indebted) are hence forever on the look-out for additional, salary enhancing, pay-outs. Of course catching an indiscrete drug user fits the bill nicely ($600 is about the going rate), although the practice is most evident on the roads. There are random “check stations” on the smallest of rural arteries and anyone may be pulled over – no misdemeanor/justification is necessary. I’ve yet to see a fancy SUV collared although we’ve experienced it with both Fa and Pon (in aged and rusting old trucks). Pon – the canny goose – initially attempted to charm her way out of the situation but in failing to do so baulked majorly at the requested 180,000 kip ($18) and countered that she had only 20,000 on her. It sufficed.

Following Mathilde’s lead we undertook a program of increasing Tad Lo’s and in particular Sipasert’s social media profile in an effort to encourage domestic tourists.

Tim’s owner Soulidath offered up, for free, his now empty computer learning center (he’d discontinued its running several years ago due to ill health) as a venue for larger scale English classes. There was no doubt we were being shepherded into a far deeper Tad Lo immersion. Whilst passing greetings had always been exchanged now any wander was punctuated with far lengthier interactions. “Is grandmama feeling better today?” “Does the baby still have a fever? Ahh, yes, it’s almost certainly because she’s teething.” “No, he isn’t overly small for his age. Really, many young children's heads appear disproportionately large, he’ll grow into it.” “Wow, I love that new skirt”. “No, sorry, we don’t have any more balloons”. “Yes, we’ll stop by for a beer after visiting the market”. Such easy familiarity and warmth are truly endearing; it was all becoming rather reminiscent of living in the quaint little suburb of Tokyo, Heiwajima Japan: the expats' utopia, which we adored.

One morning we rose to a breakfast gift: a bowl of obscenely large beetles. Yes, there is little left in the Laos Insecta world that we have not consumed, but barely awake they did provide a challenge.

The next awakening saw the arrival of eight tiny pups. Lucy, ever benevolent, was more than happy to let us come peek… in exchange for some additional rations, that unbeknown to her were laced with vitamin B complex. In rural Laos it is rare for more than one or two pups to survive weaning. We were keen to up the odds.

During an evening at M&Ms I nipped out on a beer run and, of course, Pak Dam trailed along. Nai’s is only next door yet – maybe he thought we were heading home – inexplicably Pak Dam left my side and darted across the road, just as a truck sped by. I screeched in horror as it actually passed over him. For a split sick second I was convinced he must be dead, but as it flashed by there he was tearing away. Had it clipped him? Had he, in his state of shock, not yet realized how wounded he was. I chased after him, but he’d disappeared in the gloom. He wasn’t responding to my calls and no one at Sipasert had seen him return. In desperation I began to search the bordering fields and then on the outskirts of Martin’s hollered for Ali to come. I was in some state. Seconds later the gang appeared, believing I personally had suffered some malady. Just as I was spewing an explanation Hoi and Phuang came running – Pak Dam was now home, intact. Shaking, I doubled the beer order.

Speaking of maladies… Entertaining children is far from the benign pastime it’s cracked out to be. Playing Frisbee with the Jackster in 2009 resulted in two broken ribs; tag with Lou and Lo in 2017 a torn hamstring; and now the most ridiculous of them all: another broken rib, sustained during an English lesson. We were a child down and one of us had to complete a team. The game itself – of our own devising – comprises two teams who upon instruction have to run to their personal distant pile of flash cards, select the named object, return and then place it in the appropriate “a”, “an”, or “are” box. For example: if Ali stated “apple” that would be “an”… “it is an apple”; “scissors”, “are”… “they are scissors”, etc… I was paired against 16 year old Kita who’s no slouch and in both diving for the correct box I landed heavily on a raised floorboard. Barely winded (and having secured the point) I thought little about it until later that night when my rolling over in bed was accompanied by an almighty crack.

And so, a little slowed, we finally forced ourselves to head off. Some reflective time and space were definitely required before committing to… something, or nothing? We stashed our winter gear at M&Ms, notified Pon that we’d be leaving on Monday, three days hence, although we would – honestly – be back. Of course this announcement necessitated several parties, including a day out and subsequent barbeque with the extended Sipasert clan.

Ignoring dog- and pup-based fretting our primary – habituated - dilemma was where to head, north-wards to the massing departees or south to the now semi-deserted 4,000 islands? Well… no doubt all will be revealed presently…

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