We decided to get out of the village today, at least for a while. We borrowed two bikes and pedaled clumsily down the highway to a nearby town. It was probably twice the size of our home-stay village and presented a striking demonstration of life’s relativity. The shops lining the main street dazzled and impressed us, even if they only sold bike tires or shampoo. It was like seeing the neon glare of a Las Vegas strip after weeks in the desert. We cycled along the Mekong river (which winds its way snakily down from China, an Asian Mississippi) and saw on the other side, a mere swimming distance, the jungled mountains of Laos.
Later we tried to get some work done, but I was feeling lousy and tired from the interrupted sleep the night before. We contented ourselves by crocheting (Sonia) and reading (me), awaiting the time when the kids would return from school and molest us on our quiet porch. They did come soon after, and accidentally erased one of Sonia’s documents on the computer, for which she berated them. We shooed them away like animals, but like animals smelling the lure of food – in this case, computer pinball – they soon approached again. We kept the computer out of reach and played an educational game of hangman instead. I also showed them how to draw Scooby Doo to keep them distracted.
That night, we treated our host family (Bunleod, Yurt, Uot, Mr Champ and his wife, whose name in Thai translates to sweetgreen) to an excellent dinner in nearby Bung Kla, adjacent to the restaurant where we had shared a beer that very day. It was enjoyable and sad at the same time, since it started to feel like our stay with them was coming to an end. We talked of things, as lovers do before parting, and made promises to return and to write. On our part, we vowed to send our developed pictures. Mr.Bunleod was also very interested in receiving seeds from Canada that he could cultivate and grow on his native soil. He requested apples, but I said they probably wouldn’t grow in his climate. I told him we could send big tomato seeds (the kind they slice and slap onto hamburgers back home), as the ones here were lousy, green and small. I wouldn’t mind trying to grow Dragon Fruit back home; these alien-looking, spiky pink Nerf balls of fruit grow like weeds here, but are still rare enough in Canadian grocery stores to impress me.
During our meal, we saw a large toad by the table. I thought of our frog meal a few nights earlier and pantomimed crudely, asking if we could eat this too. They said it was a poisonous frog, so no. Bunleod elaborated further, though his claims seemed spurious: this was an “HIV frog,” he explained, only to be eaten by villagers with HIV. In their superstitious ways, they believed that the poison in the frog would attack the poison from the malady and, while not saving the individual entirely, could at least prolong their life for another 4 years. I immediately saw dollar signs and thought of writing to Merck Frost – but concluded that this remedy posed significant marketing challenges.
We went biking again and escaped to the other village where we feasted on some western style thai food and then a popsicle for dessert. The food here is starting to grow tiresome. With every grain of rice I pop in my mouth, I can feel the cells of my body rioting against the starch. But it’s not just the rice, its also the mystery of each new dish, or the food safety concerns.
When we first arrived in the village two weeks ago, I was eager to enter their kitchens and cooking spaces (in this case, the kitchen floor) and to learn the art of Thai cooking. But I quickly found that this remote region of Thailand is a food inspector’s paradise. I’ve had the chance to look inside several homes here and have found many commonalities in food storage and handling: most villagers own a refrigerator, but its sole purpose is keeping their beer or bottled water chilled (the water is actually collected in reused bottles every morning from rainwater collectors off the roof). Eggs will be left out for weeks, in the heat, and then cooked, with no fear whatsoever of salmonella. We haven’t died or been sick yet, so I don’t know if we are just lucky or whether Westerners have fears unfounded. Some nights, Yort (our home stay mother and family cook) will buy a slab of meat, cut directly off of the back of a mobile meat truck, and then leave it out all night until the next day, where she will cook it up for dinner – no refrigeration! Same with leftovers: they are kept in the same serving bowls and placed in a cupboard (at least so the flies don’t get it) and then taken back out the next day and reheated.
For dinner I only ate a bowl of sinus-clearing, spicy Tom Yum soup that was tasty but gave me the hiccups. We weren’t that hungry, partly because of the reasons mentioned above and partly because I think we’re both dehydrated, even though we try to drink canned Gatorade-like drinks at least once a week. We just sweat way too much here.
Though it just rained yesterday, it feels like months since the earth here last drank. It’s a heat that is suffocating and dry, like an African heat that parches lips. The village responds by stagnating and slowing its pace further, so that even the insects no longer stir. We move, but only by necessity, from fan to fan, shade to shade.
Nonetheless, we were getting cabin fever cooped up at home, despite having worked for several hours on the computer. We biked to the nearby town of Bung Kla and ate popsicles, then rode for another 20 km just so we could feel a breeze across our faces.
Back at the homestead that night, Mr Champ pulled up on his pink scooter and we took out a beer from the fridge. I had been practicing opening up the bottle without a bottle opener, as he had showed me, by prying it over another bottle with my hands like a lever. I did it for him, nonchalantly, as if I had known all along, and he cheered. Bunleod came back from mowing lawns (he seemed always to be mowing lawns somewhere each day, though we did not know where) and we went for ice to keep all the beer cold. We showed him the progress of our work and then the conversation evolved from different topics, until it reached coconuts. Earlier that day, his brother had picked two coconuts for us and hacked them open with his machete so that we could drink the milk from a straw. We didn’t know at the time, but it turned out that coconut milk had the same effect on Sonia’s digestion as had regular cow’s milk, as she’s lactose intolerant. Apparently just having the word milk in it’s name was enough to trigger a reaction.
We explained to Bunleod the meaning of the word “allergies”, describing a list of known offenders, including milk, peanuts and some pop music which offends my ears. For a while he didn’t really comprehend the meaning and I could tell that his people were probably a bit more stout-hearted than we westerners. However, he eventually explained that he too had an allergy. Sonia and I leaned towards him with curious eyes, waiting. “Atsaigs,” he said. We didn’t catch on. “Antaigs,” he said again, in a slightly different way. It turned out he was allergic to ants eggs, which was no joke, really. He explained that ant eggs in Isan were a delicacy and that having his nose prickle each time in reaction definitely hindered his pleasure while eating them. I almost fell over laughing.
Later we moseyed over to a neighbour’s house where a young couple was celebrating the birth of their first born – a Thai baby shower, I suppose. As is customary, the entire village was present to impart well-wishes to the new family and their child. Dozens of colourful food platters littered the floor and we found a place, legs folded, closest to the most appealing dish – laap gai. We were quickly assailed by doting women who began tying yellow and white beaded strings around our wrists for good luck. We were prompted by eager, helpful women to form one-handed prayer positions with the free hand during the process and were then handed strings of our own to reciprocate the act to others, a spiritually symbolic tit for tat. By the end of the night I counted 15 string bracelets on both wrists. I noticed the mother with the newborn was also festooned with string, like a garland, though unique to her was that she had in her hand a hard-boiled egg without a shell and a fistful of sticky rice. I never found out the purpose of her tightly holding onto these food staples, though I imagined they were representative of health, wealth and prosperity. Or that she had started eating and had misplaced her dish.
And so ended our second to last evening in Kham Pia. Tomorrow we were planning on camping out in the jungle atop a mountain for our final night, before having to return back to civilization to present to the office the promotional material and report we’ve been preparing.
Our last night in Kham Pia was bittersweet. On the one hand, I craved a clean bed and clean clothes. I also sought reprieve from the insects and the ubiquitous rice meals. I wanted to escape the questionable cooking practices. On the other hand, leaving these people would bring an emptiness, like leaving family.
That night we hiked up to the top of the mountain, dripping with sweat and citronella. We found a spot inside a cave, but decided to move to somewhere more open, with better views of the valley and a fresher breeze to keep away the bugs. Using our headlamps after the sun went down, we cautiously backstepped to the open rock face where we would spend the night camped out under the stars, our mattress consisting of bare rock and lichen. I traded in the bed mites for ants, but it was well worth the experience.
We came with Mr.Bunleod and his brother Uot, who disappeared in the darkness, toting a bag and a bottle of Lao whiskey, a vile rice-concoction that smelled as if it were home-brewed. His dog trailed behind him as he went off in search of frogs for food. The rest of us talked, sipping whiskey as well, telling star-tales, speaking of politics and life in other countries. A fire lit up the night beside us, and lightning flashed overhead, even though there would be no rain. We heard Uot yelling later on that his light had died and Bunleod went off in search of him. They both stumbled back, drunk, a while later. Uot had forgotten his dog somewhere, without realizing it, and had also misplaced his machete, as we discovered in the morning. However, he had been successful in his hunt; peering inside his bag, as we would a shopping cart, was a headless turtle still moving and crawling though visibly in the throes of death. Trying to sleep later on, we kept on hearing a rustling noise, and then realized it was the turtle, still headless but alive, crawling in the bag and inching closer to our resting spot.
Often during the night I awoke, uncomfortable or chilled or feeling a bug stray up my leg. Once I heard Uot stirring and saw over my shoulder that he had found another animal and was cooking it like shish kebob over the fire. On other occasions I would simply stare up at the Milky Way, lost in its dark and dreamy sinews.
Woke up at 5 am, having slept very little. With eyes half closed, we watched the sun rise over the Mekong river. The last star dwindled out and minutes later the heat had already grown unbearable. We began our walk downhill. Uot stayed behind to search for his missing dog and machete. The dog later returned to the village on her own, however the machete is probably sitting at the bottom of a ravine somewhere, rusting.
Our final lunch was sad. Mr.Champ came to eat with us as well. We gave out our gifts: a bottle of whiskey each for Bunleod and his brother, and a package of smoked salmon and a crocheted bag for Yort. I know that they would miss us too.
A tuk tuk crumpled under the weight of our bags and brought us back to the highway, where Champ and Bunleod waited to see us off. We all fell asleep at the bus shelter, in the sweltering heat, about to give up hope that a bus would even show up (schedules are very erratic and unpredictable here), when finally we spotted it in the distance, immersed in its own cloud of dust. We hugged and shook hands in western fashion and then sadly boarded the bus away from what felt like home and family.
The ride was long and sad and we didn’t say much. We were anxious to finish up our work and move on.
December 24th, 2010 at 5:50 am
Mike, you are a gifted travel writer who has the ability to arouse the senses – that to me is a good writer. Keep cooking, but most of all, keep writing.