Saturday, June 18, 2005

New Career?

On the east bank of the Mekong, Savannakhet was a very important trading post for the French and, as such, retains more colonial buildings than any other town here in Laos. I'll begin to sound like a broken record if I were to say that the town is very relaxed, so once and for all I'll just state that the whole country is laid back, and it seems to me that the further south you go the more recumbent the people get. It's great fun just walking through the town as all the little kids, upon seeing you, start shouting Sabaidee! Sabaidee! (Hello! Hello!) The cheerful shouting carries on even after you've answered sabaidee back and walked round the corner. Furthermore the smiles on the faces of young and old alike are similarly wide and genuine.

I had planned to visit some obscure ethnic group in the far east of the country while I was here, but the national park in which they live is closed for the duration of the rainy season; so instead I settled for a local Lao homestay, and I'm quite glad I did. For a start I didn't feel any of the embarrassment that I felt before when visiting hilltribes because ordinary Lao villagers have TVs and scooters and go to school, and so I don't feel like I'm ogling some museum exhibit, but instead can interact with the community. The highlight for me was when I got down and dirty and helped out the farmers with rice planting in the paddy fields. The sensation as you're wading almost knee deep in warm mud, though at first odd, is very pleasant, but I'm not sure if my contribution was of any material help. Whilst the villagers (again, mostly women) had the planting down to a fine art, the seedlings going up like a reverse domino rally, I was floundering and leaving wonky seedlings in my wake. This was all part of the fun for the villagers because, even though the work is backbreaking, rice planting is a social occasion and every opportunity is taken to have a laugh and lighten the atmosphere.

In the evening, as well as a lovely dinner (I'll have to write a post about Lao food at some point), we were the recipients of a traditional Lao ceremony of good luck. The village elders came round and, with us, formed a circle around a classic cone-shaped charm made of banana leaves and flowers. After a few general requests of good luck from the spirits (despite being Buddhists, there is a great deal of spirit and ancestor worship amongst the Lao) each of the elders, in turn, came up and tied a white band of cotton around our wrists whilst wishing us good luck, long life, many children, etc. I have so many wristbands now that it looks that I've just had an unsuccessful wrist-slashing attempt. After the ceremony there was music and singing; each of us having to add something to the festivities. Therefore the unfortunate elders were subjected to a horribly out of tune rendition of Flower O' Scotland (perhaps the worst performance in history?), which, to my great surprise, they seemed to like (though I'm sure they were just being polite).

All in all it was really good fun and I learnt a great deal of Lao as well. Plus now, if I'm unsure of what to do when I get back home I can always set up shop over here as a cabaret act for the local farmers (I don't think my planting skills are up to scratch for that particular vocation).

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