Messing About in Boats – Part 2

17 Mar

It is pretty much a given, in rural South-East Asia, that falang (and, I guess, locals too) in need of a bed for the night will eventually find someone prepared to put them up.

So, as the sunset pink fades from the Mekong, the night fishermen come out and we moor our increasingly sodden skiff on a promising-looking stretch of bank on another substantial island which does not appear on our map, there is no hint of the Straw Dogs about the encroaching dark. It’s just an adventure.

We scale the bank, forge our way through the trees, and emerge into a grey murk of paddy-stubble framed by scrubby dykes. “Look!” says Z. “There’s a fire over there.”

“So there is!” I say.

We head across the towards the scarlet glimmer between the trees. “Oh,” I say. “Is that a cow? Oh no. It’s got horns. I think it’s a water buffalo.”

Lao oxen, water buffalo, cows and bulls appear remarkably even-tempered. Twilight on an unnamed island in the middle of the Mekong, however, seems an unwise time to test this theory out.

“Look!” says Z. “There’s a wat over there.”

I make a mental note that the monastery can be our last attempt at accommodation. Failing which, we have layers (though no hammocks) and can make a fire. Plus, for once I have remembered to bring a torch.

At which point, surreally, given the island has pylons running to it but there is no light but firelight to be seen, a blast of hip-hop echoes from a few hundred metres to our right. A motorbike appears out of the gloaming, revealing a narrow sand path, which we follow.

We meet a group of women. “Sabaydee,” we chirrup. “Sabaydee,” they reply.

“Is there anywhere on this island we can stay for the night?” asks Z.

They speak no English. Nor do they speak French. “Where is a guesthouse?” I say, in halting Lao, by which I mean, where can we get a room for the night.

There is no guesthouse on the island. Obviously. There are, they reveal, guesthouses in Muang Khong, the town on Don Khong which we left that afternoon.

I shake my head at Don Khong. Using a mixture of sign language and random syllables of Lao, I try to explain that we have a pirog that we are paddling from Don Khong to Don Det, have moored it on the bank up that way, and just want to sleep the night then paddle off in the morning.

They beckon to us. We follow. We are joined by a couple of older women, lips that lurid betel-chewing pink that looks like cheap scarlet lipstick after a big night out, and two gentlemen, both of whom, it appears, have boats and would be happy to transport us, and tow our boat, to Muang Khong, or even to Don Det.

I recall, from Cambodia, that most persons in rural areas who are old enough to have learnt French in Indochine have forgotten every word of it.

I make headshaking gestures at mentions of Muang Khong and Don Det, and sleeping gestures. Floods of Lao issue forth in return.

Z adopts the tried-and-tested male procedure of speaking English loudly and clearly.

“We don’t want to go to Don Khong. Or Don Det. We want to sleep here,” he says.

The women talk among themselves. The word falang comes up with discomfiting frequency, followed by a flood of the informal affirmative oeu. I shrug apologetically and make “I’m hopeless” faces.

The most venerable of the ladies feels Z’s calf, and is displeased by what she finds. The phrase kin khao comes up.

“What is she saying?” Z asks, wearily.

“I think she’s saying that you’re too thin and you need to eat more rice.” Lao people are compact. Z is long-limbed, broad-shouldered and slender, a typical Western skinny kid, with skinny prepubescent legs. To this lady, he clearly appears malnourished, if not emaciated: his proportions are just wrong.

More and more islanders gather. Eventually, we appear to get through to a young guy in his 20s, who takes us off into the darkness further down the island. The hip-hop sparks up again.

This is, to both me and Z, a promising sign.

And lo! Our host for the night, a gentleman in his late 50s or early 60s whose name we understand as Eli. He speaks some English. And, courtesy of a 1970s primary-school textbook, we understand that we are welcome at his house.

It is here that my lack of the language really becomes frustrating. Eli is our host. He clearly has good stories to tell. His father, a mischievous old so-and-so sporting a tartan travel rug as a sarong, topped off with a button-down shirt, has an evil sense of humour, and is smoking a banana-leaf rollie the size of a Jerry Bruckheimer Marine NCO’s cigar (“Drop and give me twenty, boy!”). His daughters have gorgeous babies, and are sweet as pie.

Eli and I sit, cross-legged, facing each other, trying to combine the Lonely Planet South-East Asia phrasebook (Lao phonetically transliterated into Roman script) and the child’s primer, Lao firmly in Lao script, into a conversation.

I can ask him the way to the pharmacy. He can ask me how many brothers and sisters I have. Neither of us can answer the other, even if we wanted to ask those questions. I want to ask him what he does, if he’s a rice farmer. I can’t even ask him that. I compliment him on his family, and his house, using sign language.

A friend of Eli’s arrives, bearing a French-Lao pocket dictionary. This seems promising. Except none of the assembled gentlemen can read a script that size, there’s no transliteration, and none of the chaps want to admit they can’t read the script.

Small children peek from the top of the stairs, cowering back when I glance at them, until they pluck up courage to come closer. Eli’s wife rolls out a rattan bedding mat, and together we put up a mosquito net. Z sits inside the net as in a cage, and clowns, taking the lotus position and walking on his knees, but tumbling. The family is amused.

Villagers pop by to sample my exotic falang Marlboro Lights. A lady of Eli’s age, with betel lips and a brown print sampot, smokes one with an air that is daring, even raffish. I try to palm Eli some money for his hospitality, but I’ve got either the timing or the etiquette wrong. (I think, like police bribes, the form is to slip the notes inside an exercise book.)

In the daytime living space below the stilts of the house, Z and Eli’s 10-year-old grandchild, unencumbered by the lack of a common language, are playing on a board swing.

The Marlboro Light smoker and Eli’s dad invite me to the source of the hip-hop, the village shebeen. It’s essentially the front stoop of someone’s house, a bamboo slat floor, covered in mattresses, with an ancient tape-deck, two ear-bleeding amps, a twelve-litre plastic vat of lao lao, the local rice whisky, two pint glasses, a selection of plastic cups, a handful of beer crates, and a fan.

My god, would I love to know what those amps were doing there.

Eli’s dad forces some lao lao on me, in the communal plastic cup. I manage to communicate that I would like to buy some drinks and cigarettes for people. Two beers and a packet of fags appear, which are distributed to the assembled throng.

The raffish lady starts to dance. Z and the older grandkids switch my cheap Lao lighter to flamethrower setting, find stuff to burn, and burn it. They are children. There are no differences.

Z is an urban, privileged child from one of the world’s great cities; his new friends live in rural poverty on a tiny island in the Mekong. But they play. They are friends. They do not compete. It is very sweet.

Eli will not allow me to buy his father, who is clearly quite incorrigible, any more lao lao. So we head back to his.

I sleep like the dead until every rooster in the village goes off in competition soon after dawn. Z doesn’t even stir. The women make us omelette and rice for breakfast, which Z, who is not a fan of omelettes generally, eats with appropriate expressions of pleasure.

I am really proud of him for this. One of the things we discussed before we went away was the dangers of hospitality and how to behave when one is a guest in someone’s home and one’s host offers one some vile delicacy, at huge expense to themselves (or, for that matter, something made with unboiled water).

Sure, an omelette isn’t rancid chunks of sandy goat fat, or camel’s foot, both of which I’ve forced down past an active gag reflex in my time, and I said I’d take the fall with anything particularly vile. And it isn’t an unboiled water drink, which we agreed we’d pretend to swallow. But he neither blenched, nor whinged, nor asked if there was anything else, nor muttered at me. He just chowed down and smiled.

Eli takes my money, this time round. I thank him, and we go.

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2 Responses to “Messing About in Boats – Part 2”

  1. nicole curry March 24, 2010 at 7:20 pm #

    Love the blog. We have been in similar situations with food and gratitude here in Vietnam…It’s always so nice when our boys rise to the occasion! Good job Z..Can’t wait to read more of your journey!

    • MummyT March 28, 2010 at 10:03 pm #

      What amazes me is how much more quickly they pick up on cultural etiquette than we do. Well, some bits of it, anyway… I still have a tendency to put my feet up (very bad) and get roundly slapped down for so doing…

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