High water risin’, rising night and day.

At Pi Mai, things get a little crazy.

The Lao people take their new year’s celebration quite seriously. It’s a time to cleanse the soul, wash away the old, and, well, party your ass off.

Buckets of water are dumped, torrential rainstorms appear from nowhere, and the Beerlao intake is tripled.

So, to explain, here a few pictures from B from that whacky, wet and hot as hell week.

During Pi Mai, water is holy. You wash yourself, drench your friends, cleanse the Buddah, and jump in the river. So a day hanging with some favorite tots in Pha Theung, we put the fear of parasites behind us, and jumped in the Nam Ou.

At our first basii ceremony of the week, whiskey Lao was passed furiously throughout. The face, here, of our friend and co-worker, pretty much says it all.

For months Noy has talked about the big New Year’s match of the women’s national team. You’d never know from her face that her team got crushed, because, like she says, ‘we try very hard and have fun, so bo ben nyueng.’

This is my girl, Nut. For the entire time I’ve known here she has worn the same tattered green dress. But, for Pi Mai, everyone gets a new article of clothing. Of course Nut, the cutest human alive, got a bright banana yellow dress.

now your dancing child.

IMG_0849Confession: I’m a killer jump roper.

No really, in my more agile days, I had mad skills. Not playground skills. Borderline obsessive practice-three-hours-a-day-for-ten-years, skills. Competition skills, perform in Disney World skills.

Jump rope defined my childhood. It sent me on my first international travels, taught me how to work my ass off for something, and possibly ruined my ankles for life. (All was worth it, by the way.)

That said, getting to jump rope with some awesome kids at the children’s center the other day was, hands down, one of my top five Lao moments.

They put me to shame. My skills, nurtured by a coach, in an air-conditioned gym, wearing expensively supportive sneakers, have got nothing on theirs.

Pu, who’s ten, picked up a rope, kicked off his sandals, and busted a move on the gravel in the oppressive midday heat. He was shocked at his own abilities and, drenched in sweat, spent the next hour perfecting them.

So, confession: When I was 8-years-old my lifelong goal was to be a jump rope coach.

Confession: That may just still be my dream.

we’re serious…

DSC_1054it is this hot here.

Since I’m the kind of person that’s cold when it’s below 70, I don’t mind.

Since B is the kind of person who sweats above 50, he’s miserable.

We’re working on mind over matter and inner peace techniques. Beerlao, however, seems to be the best cure for B.

we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

DSC_0984Here’s what I love about Phayong village: Everything.

I love the food: Sweet potato soup, boiled chicken fresh off the butchering block, sardines with pumpkin, and, of course, Beer Lao. Each dish served in extreme excess by a lovely, toothless granny sporting a traditional Hmong skirt and a Billabong hoodie. Each bite savory, spicy and thick with fat.

I love the boys who, up till the age of five, habitually go pantless. Pantless and fearless. Slide down a poorly sanded wooden stick, naked? Of course. Hop on your makeshift skateboard and barrel down a hill, naked? Obviously.

I love the girls. The young Hmong women who already look and feel more mature then I’ll ever be. By age twelve, they’re cooking the meals, going to school, and raising their siblings. Their faces are rich with experience and understanding, their humanity and compassion for strangers indescribable.

Here’s how much I want to live in Phayong village: not at all.

I love my life. I chose my partner. I’m 24 and am happily childless. I travel. I live where I want. I have a job that, given all the choice in the world, I would choose 100 percent of the time.

When I do manual labor, it’s for fun (ie: four poster bed building with my very handy man).

I am educated, and there was never any question that I would be.

I have absolute and complete freedom in my future.

I’ll go back to Phayong again and again. This afternoon in fact. I’ll eat the food, play with kids, and be humbled by their kindness each time.

But each time, I will come home, thankful for my partner, my education, my life.

Thankful for my choices.

where my stomach disappeared.

Dearest parasite,

I’m just going to start…I’m all done, OK? Things just aren’t working out with us anymore.

I know, I know, it started out so good. That day on the Mekong, that deliciously fresh star-fruit you rode in on. I think I gave you the wrong impression. I know I welcomed you so freely, but, really, I just wanted a bite of fruit. I’m sorry, you don’t think me a tease, do you?

And I know, it wasn’t all bad at first. Our first night, up all night, I didn’t mind it so much. I remembered the water, the boat ride, the fruit, and I forgave you all your urgent and crampy flaws.

But now, things are just changing so much. I don’t remember what a full nights sleep is like. Just once, please, I’d love to not spend the wee hours coaxing you away from the brink of total destruction.

Can we just end this amicably? Sweet and simple, just as it started?

Please, don’t hate me. I just can’t do it anymore.

Daak Fai

PS. If you fail to take this note to heart, I will kill you.

and your eyes like smoke.

clothes sizedHere, too, there’s days like this:

You wake up at 3:30 with the sound of roosters and (is it possible?) some sort of construction; the possibility of more sleep has been quickly crowed away. You think for a moment that it wouldn’t be so bad to dig out your eardrums.

When the sun finally comes up, it’s light and warmth are hidden by a thick and oppressive shield of smoke. It turns out, the entire country does their field burning at once, so you spend the morning delirious in the haze of some farmers rice.

Then you’ve got to do laundry, which of course, being you, you’ve put off for far too long. So it takes hours. Not hours of unattended washing machine sort of laundry. Hours of labor intensive, stain scrubbing, hands pruning laundry. Then hang it to dry, rotate it every thirty minutes and quickly smack out the dust stains before anyone figures out you dropped most of it on the ground at one point or another.

(Pause here to spend a good hour running to and from the bathroom because you thought yourself tough enough to eat handpicked fruit you washed in the Mekong.)

You sit for a moment and see the dirty french press and mugs staring you down. So, back outside it is, to the kitchen (read: hose). Again, being you, you find several days of dirty dishes piled by the kitchen (hose) so have to hunker down on your haunches, and start washing, sans soap or sponge. You’ve long ago accepted that nothing, nothing in this country is actually clean.

You convince yourself that some nice cheap market food will be perfect for dinner. But tonight, well, it sucks. The vegetables are cold and wilty and the chicken on a stick has far too many mystery parts to it. The beer Lao is warm and the crepe man on the corner has taken the night off.

But this is it, and this is how you want it to be.

Life is life, and you are you, wherever you go. As it should be. My grandmother, who moved around countless times in her life, always told me that if you enjoy your life and have friends in one place, both will be true in the next place, as it’s something that you carry with you.

Well said, grandma. And might I add the same is true for laundry and sensitive digestive systems; they will follow you everywhere.

the geometry of flesh on the bone.

mmm fishI’ve crossed the threshold, stepped over that line that separated falang from local, tourist from Lao.

Tonight, I am Lao.

Tonight, I sucked the meat out of a fish’s belly.

I picked through the spine, around the gelatinous central core, and ate every single piece of fish off that carcass. I devoured the skin and used bones to clean my teeth.

Because here, where full tummies and healthful meals are far from guaranteed, the Lao waste nothing. Every bit of meat left on a bone is an insult, a slap in the face to the decades of struggle and starvation in this country.

It’s always present: the first thing you say to somebody by way of greeting is hello, and have you eaten? It’s ingrained in a people that have learned to make do with little, live off their land, and share with their neighbors in hopes of survival. Even in the most modern, affluent Lao home, Khin kao la bo? have you eaten, is the most frequently uttered phrase.

Noy congratulated me tonight on eating like a Lao person. She gives me a sturdy pat on the back each time I do something a little more Lao—say the right word, bow at the right time, run the right stop signs, wake up early and take a naps daily. These things, she says, make me Lao.

We fall short when she tells me, with a smile and a beer Lao, to do everything for B. Lao women, she says, spend their lives serving their male counterparts. (Noy is, and loves to be, single.)

I tell her there’s some things, western feminism for instance, that won’t be washed away with a transglobal move.

A fish belly though, well that can be sucked dry.

no add meat pork, add meat chicken.

wordsHere’s the problem: Lao is hard. I mean seriously hard.

It’s tonal, it’s duplicitous, it’s backwards. Every word has infinite meanings. A little extra gasp on the ‘h’ sound, and you ordered your soup with no dad, not no spice.
A slight inhale on the ‘b,’ and you told a group of preschoolers that you live in a sandal.

And context is of no help. A Lao person will stare at you like you’ve just offered them a plate of your own feces if you order a bowl of phu rather than phuu. The confusion will be endless, and you’ll walk out with a coke, the one universally recognized word.

And to add to all of this, there’s no help; you’re going it alone. You pick up what you can by listening, you ask for translations, but at the end of the day that’s all you got, and trust me, it isn’t much. There’s no book, no computer translation program, no magic CD’s that promise fluency in 30 days.

So, to combat this? Flashcards. Always the best answer. An endless amount of flashcards. Potato, hangover, electricity, month. Piles for numbers, action verbs, time placers, foods, pronouns.

So you practice. Practice alone, with some friends who do their best not to laugh, some people who politely pretend to understand. You practice until you can go to the woman at the noodle shop down the street and order a bowl of pho, no pork please, and not spicy. ‘Kway thong kong kin pho, bo sia siin moo, bo phet.’

And then you sit there in this little outdoor restaurant, eating your bowl of noodles with the groups of Lao people on lunch break.

And afterwards? Well, you’ve earned it, of course. A stop at the waffle stand on the way home for a fluffy, sweet, heart-shaped treat. Just one please, no spice.

our international language.

and thus we enter the year of the tiger.

On our way to dinner, Allison and I feel a Christmas Eve-like anticipation. Streets are empty and strings of lights are lit.

A coworker of A & J’s, here in Taichung, has invited us to have Chinese New Year at his Taiwanese girlfriend’s house. We have, per usual, no idea what to expect.

When we get to the apartment, we’re given slippers to wear and pointed towards the table; the kitchen is small, crowded and smelling wonderful. The rooms are close together and cluttered, the walkway tight and the dinner table filled with plates of food.

We’re pointed to our seats where we drink a little rice whiskey (much like the burning Lao Lao we’re familiar with) and watch some TV (also a comfortable Lao norm–TV always on). Inside this family’s home, we are welcomed, warm.

The food keeps coming out and Minni, the girlfriend, does her best to explain each item and it’s New Year’s meaning, most of which have to do with a coming year filled with prosperity and money.

Our host, Minni’s mother, soon comes out after what must have been a long day in the kitchen. She sweetly, softly, in Mandarin, thanks us all for coming and says she’s happy we can be here.

With small bowls and chopsticks, we eat. And eat, and eat. Tofu skins, deep fried cakes, rice noodles, pork balls, grilled peppers. I’m impressed with my performance; I pass off only one item I can’t stomach into Allison’s bowl. B sits across from us, filling and refilling his bowl with pork ball lamb soup, slouching from fullness and going back for more.

And we continue this way, eating way past our fill, until the dinner is over.

After we thank our host and say goodbye, Minni leads us down the road to a small, smokey bar, the only open place on the street.

So here, with some 24 oz beers, a growing group of locals, and a little bit of family, we ring in the year of the tiger.

And its possible, just maybe, that we close out the night with a cousin karaoke duet of Like a Virgin .