Finding a Peak in Cotapaxi, Ecuador – by Zall, age 17

Finding a Peak in Cotapaxi, Ecuador

This summer, Zall spent 8-weeks immersed as a volunteer in a small rural village in the Cotapaxi region of Ecuador through the “Amigos De Las Americas” Program (similar to Peace Corps).  Living with a local family that only spoke Spanish (and Kichwa), Zall organized and led an after school educational program for kids ages 4-16, organized the construction of a needed school out-building, practiced his Spanish all day every day, and was “wowed” by the beauty of the land and resourcefulness of its inhabitants. Here is a first report:

Two water bottles were filled and contained 2 drops of chlorine each and a vitamin C packet. The two water bottles perhaps made my backpack four times as heavy, but necessary when on an all-day hike at 12,000 feet in the sun. Today was a Tuesday, and that meant that a representative from PLAN* International was in Yanhurco, the town of 600 where I volunteered this summer. On this particular day, a hike was scheduled to a “nearby” ridge where we would sit and talk about today’s PLAN-based topic, sexuality.

Zall embraces the highland views.  He lived at 12,000 feet and, although he was on the equator, he wore gloves every day to fend off the sharp cold and relentless wind.

Zall embraces the highland views. He lived at 12,000 feet and, although he was on the equator, he wore gloves every day to fend off the sharp cold and relentless wind.

My volunteer partner, Rachel, met up with me at the scheduled 10 a.m. outside the front gate of the school and, being on Ecuador time, the youth in the community showed up around 11 a.m. and the PLAN representative, Pablo, at around 11:30. Hitching our backpacks of water, we began our ascent on a dusty road winding from the back of the town. It was a rarer day in Yanhurco when the sun split through the sky and bathed us in something other than dust, cold, or wind.

Zall leads his young “campamentos” group in a discussion on the village school’s playground. It was cold every day!

By the first 30 minutes, I was sweating profusely, my face was covered in several layers of dirt and the scenery surrounding me had left a permanent sense of awe that was highly visible on my face. The older youth had all run ahead, but walking at this altitude was a feat by itself.

Zall's "campamentos" group, eating their snack at the walk's end, just before the talk on relationships and sexuality.

Zall’s “campamentos” group, eating their snack at the walk’s end, just before the talk on relationships and sexuality.

Up and down hills and mountains we went, over streams and through crops for hours. I had just rounded the corner when Pablo looked back at me with a large, childish grin and said in Spanish, “That’s where we’re going to stop!” I followed the direction of his finger and laughed. He had pointed to a large rock on a nearby mountain that seemed at the time like it might have actually been in Peru. My laughed ceased as I realized with utmost dread that he was serious.
And hour or two later, just as my lungs and legs were about to collapse, I fell onto the rock face where we would end our hike for the day. Pablo pulled out a piece of bread for all the youth that had come and I inhaled a liter and a half of water. We all cooled down and the local youth flirted back and forth. As the last bread crumbs were licked off our fingers, Pablo pulled out bracelets and packets of information for everyone as well. The packets were full of useful information about general sexuality, menstrual cycles and pregnancy; the bracelets were black with neon highlights and blazoned on them were the words Habla Serio: Sexualidad Sin Misterios (Real Talk, Sexuality without Mysteries).

Zall's homestay family, with the dad behind him.  Rachel, in the wool hat, was the other Amigos volunteer immersed in his village.

Zall’s homestay family, with the dad behind him. Rachel, in the wool hat, was the other Amigos volunteer immersed in his village.

We didn’t get very far into the talk. Just a few minutes after we received the bracelets, a kid had come down from a higher part of the rock and yelled that he’d found bushes of arándanos (wild blueberries). Thrilled with the news, the twenty kids all ran up the rock and gorged themselves on the small, sweet blueberries.
As we sat on top of this rock, picking blueberries in the midst of Ecuador, I had one of those wonderful travel moments where I realize how unreal a situation is. I was on top of a gigantic rock, hours from any substantial settlement, the wind blowing its usual gale, picking and eating blueberries with Kichwaen youth.  That’s what I was doing, really!

By the time that we had filled ourselves, it was time to start the journey back to Yanahurco. There would be plenty of time to finish the talk next Tuesday.

I want to send a big thank you to the Above the Fray fans who donated to the Amigos de las Americas Program to help me afford my volunteer effort. I am confident I made a difference for many people n Yanahurco; I know that these same people made a difference in me I will treasure, and expand upon, in the years ahead.   A big thanks also to Amigos de las Americas for the training and set-up so I could be a more effective teacher and community organizer.  Mucho gracias! 

*PLAN International is a worldwide organization that aims to achieve lasting improvements in the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries.

Leading My Own Journey – by Zall, age 16

 Leading My Own Journey  -  by Zall, age 16

I know – usually you turn here looking for my reaction to some bizarre insect meal or the quirks of travelling with my parents, but in this newsletter I’m looking at the future.

Zall, ready for a new adventure.

Zall, ready for a new adventure.

It’s been eight years since my first trip to South-East Asia. I’ve interacted with a multitude of different cultures, eaten a plethora of things that some would consider inedible, and discovered parts of this world I never knew existed; eight years go by so fast.  Now, having only a year left before going to college, I find myself upon the springboard of my own journey.

For quite some time, I have been searching for an appropriate volunteer program (much like my brother Ari experienced several years ago on his public service trip to Ghana), that would be independent, broad, and an experience that will change my life and more importantly, the lives of others around me.  Eventually, I stumbled upon an incredible opportunity to do some volunteer work of my own. The “Amigos de las Americas” program has accepted me as a volunteer this upcoming summer in Cotopaxi, Ecuador in a mountainous, rural Kichwa community.

Amigos de las Americas is an international, non-profit organization that “empowers high school and college students to develop leadership skills and increase multi-cultural understanding through training and community service in Latin America.”  I will be working in collaboration with PLAN and FEPP, two humanitarian organizations whose main goal is to improve the welfare of communities through the support and motivation of youth in less-developed countries, like Ecuador.  I will be completely immersed in a Spanish and Kichwa-speaking community and living with a local family, and will be expected to develop, participate in, and even lead community service projects that best fit the needs of my specific community, such as repairing classrooms, building latrines, and engaging local youth in environmental health, gender equality, and human rights projects.  My three years of high school Spanish are really going to be appreciated!

A Basi, Some Chaos, and Common Ground by Zall, Age 16

A Basi, Some Chaos, and Common Ground by Zall, Age 16

A night to remember – if you can.

In my left hand I am holding, zooming, and focusing my camera – desperately trying to get one picture of the chaotic scene. Grease is running from the chicken neck that had been pressed into my right hand and an old lady is chanting prayers way too loud and far too close to my face. The woman is tying the traditional orange basi strings to my right wrist and the vice-governor is tying basi strings onto my left hand controlling the camera and I have no idea how I seemed to have gotten into this situation. Sounds like a perfect travel moment.

The “old lady” who is the Vice Governor’s mom, and who, as the elder and the mother of the man who had invited us to his home, led the chanting for the basi ceremony.

The “old lady” who is the Vice Governor’s mom, and who, as the elder and the mother of the man who had invited us to his home, led the chanting for the basi ceremony.

15 minutes earlier, the situation had been under control. We were about 8 games of petanque. 3 songs, 5 dances, and many toasts into the night and we had been invited to the ex-governor’s house for a late meal and celebration – of what I have no idea, but that didn’t seem to deter the merriment. As we stepped into the ex-governor’s house, a boisterous man that I had never seen before reached out, shook my hand, and brought me into the kitchen with a ceaseless smile.

The post-basi meal being set out for consumption.

The post-basi meal being set out for consumption.

We were all plopped in front of a giant jar of lao hai.  The clay jar, perhaps two feet tall, had been filled with fermenting rice and, some hours earlier, water.  The tradition is that the host pours a buffalo horn-full of water slowly into the top of the jar while those sipping through the tall straws slurp fast enough from the alcoholic bottom of the jar so that the jar doesn’t overflow.  We all shared a turn filling our gullets with the light sweet beer-like alcohol to the encouragement, laughter, song, and dance of the fifteen or twenty people around us.

Our Lao friends laughing and chatting around the lao hai jar.

Our Lao friends laughing and chatting around the lao hai jar.

Before I knew it, we were whisked off again in a hurry and I was offered a floor pillow next to an ancient, bent-over lady. The elder first turned to my mother and grabbed her hands. They talked for a while with little common language, but with complete understanding.  There was something wonderful and real about the connection between the two mothers – language barriers didn’t matter in the least.  The elder then turned to me, grasped my hands, and stared into my eyes.  She may have said something or not, but I knew what she meant regardless.

The ex-Governor - a man greatly admired in the region, was also invited to the basi.

The ex-Governor – a man greatly admired in the region, was also invited to the basi.

Mom and the Vice Governor’s mom bonding without need of common language - see the orange basi strings on mom’s arm?

Mom and the Vice Governor’s mom bonding without need of common language – see the orange basi strings on mom’s arm?

The next thing that I know, 20 people are packed into the room with a dinner platter of gigantic proportions – chicken, soup made from greens, bowls of vegetables and jheow (spicy, garlicky condiments for dipping), and, of course, mountains of sticky rice. Before I could grasp what was happening, the basi ceremony had begun. The elder next to me starts a loud monotone chant which Mai translates to be about “good health, happy life, future prosperity, best wishes, etc.”  My memory becomes a blur at this point, and so do my photos.  A woman firmly presses a cooked chicken neck into my hands, chanting what I assume means something like “good wishes”; the warm grease drips down my wrists and onto my camera. Several adults and every kid reach for clutches of orange and white strings; three more people grab my busy arms and tie several basi string bracelets around each wrists, with every string being loudly blessed by the person tying it on.  Four months later, those strings still decorate my wrists.  There were more toasts, more glasses of Beer Lao were passed around. My plate was never allowed to be even half empty before some mom-aged adult reached over and shoveled more onto it.  Appetites and generosity certainly are a cultural universal!

From left to right, the Vice Governor, Souk’s husband, and Mai - toasting is an important part of any basi cermony.

From left to right, the Vice Governor, Souk’s husband, and Mai – toasting is an important part of any basi cermony.

After several hours of partying and laughing, and the entire group standing up to sing a traditional “good-bye” song, we stumbled home from the former governor’s house and toppled onto our beds in exhaustion.

Where’s the Meat? – by Zall, age 16

Where’s the Meat? –  by Zall, age 16

Zall on the job, photographing bombs, mortars, and fuel tanks from the “American War”.

Zall on the job, photographing bombs, mortars, and fuel tanks from the “American War”.

Bony gray fish paste – that’s how this story starts. Bony gray fish paste in the middle of Xam Tai, Laos: a small weaving town and our favorite location on our travels. Who needs a reason for a party when you can have one anyway? That seemed to be the motive behind our weeklong stay in Xam Tai. Our friends wait patiently all year for us to arrive as we bring in money for the village as well as Malaithong, our guide and friend, who has been best friends with the head-weavers since they were children (and who see each other only once or twice a year). This was, of course, cause enough for quite the town party.

Fish grilling in preparation for laap.

Fish grilling in preparation for laap.

Long tables were set out for a slew of guests, including, one evening, the ex-governor of the region, and games of petanque (bocce ball) created shouts with each successful (or failed) shot. Drinks were poured and drunk and offered and accepted and the atmosphere made any expression but a beaming grin impossible to make.

So here I was sitting at the table waiting for the next jubilant feast when the special dish came out from the back of the kitchen. Three people had worked for 2 hours on the traditional ceremonial Laos dish of fish laap. It had been a whole afternoon of light snacking, mostly on bits of dog and beer, so we were all famished. Plopped in front of me was the remnant of probably 50 small fish chopped up in their entirety so finely that it had become a gray fish paste. Throughout our journeys to foreign countries, I’ve learned to never judge a dish before it is tried. So I took the usual amount of glutinous rice in the palm of my hand, indented it with my thumb, as is the custom, and scooped the gray matter into the indent.

Souk’s husband starts the chopping process of the fish for laap - a very special ceremonial dish for friends.  The chopping continued for another hour and a half.

Souk’s husband starts the chopping process of the fish for laap – a very special ceremonial dish for friends. The chopping continued for another hour and a half.

The first things I noticed were the bones. These bones weren’t the easy-to-crunch-through kind of bones; they were spiky and sharp and no matter which way I turned them with my tongue, they seemed unchewable and stabbed me between the teeth. The taste wasn’t in any way particularly unpleasant – just musty, plain, and wet: yes, wet is a flavor, trust me.

At this point in time, it had been far too long since I had any sort of real protein. Both cheese and beans were unavailable, so the only source of real protein was meat, and my body was crying out for such sustenance.  There was a place not too far down the road that a couple days earlier had served grilled water-buffalo bits on skewers. Desperately, the next day, we asked our good friend, Souk, if we could have some of that meat as our contribution to dinner. She agreed and we all felt relieved to know a protein-rich meal was forthcoming. Souk returned several hours later to say that the meat lady wasn’t cooking that day because she was working in the rice fields – but Souk said she had found another place that served barbeque also.

A Lao man in the market grilling a pig face, intestines, liver, tail, and other offal.

A Lao man in the market grilling a pig face, intestines, liver, tail, and other offal.

Late afternoon was hot – an unforgivable heat that seems to add more gravity to every limb of your body – and in Laos in July, that meant thunderstorms – so I was out trying to photograph some of the distant lightning when my parents called me to dinner.  My stomach was gurgling – I was running on empty. I arrived at the table and sitting proudly in the middle of the tables were big bowls of… skin? fat? gristle? My smile dropped and I tried to look like I was excited. Mom gave me an apologetic look while I sat and grabbed the small piece close to me. I chewed. And chewed. And chewed. My mom looked at me again and whispered, “pig ears.” I wasn’t too unhappy really; they tasted pretty much like oil and pork fat. So then I began to think. But where was the meat?

Phut’s husband intently watches teammate Josh’s petanque throw.

Phut’s husband intently watches teammate Josh’s petanque throw.

The next day, while we were playing another game of petanque, my dad and I saw smoke from a grill rising above the trees just down the road. We walked down to the fire and saw more of the Laos specialty: twisting organs, severed tubes, pig ears, and more barbequed I-have-no-idea. My dad picked up a few more chopped ears and another chewy thing and we had our march of defeat back to where we were staying and a crowd of local petanque players eager for our offering. I sighed and sat down in the chair with a cup of sweet Lao-Lao and nibbled on a piece of ear.

Where was the meat? I wondered once more and bit down on another sliver of pig ear while the sounds of petanque rang in my ears.

Inspired Moments That, As Yet, Go Nowhere – by Zall, age 15

Inspired Moments That, As Yet, Go Nowhere -  by Zall, age 15

Cultural oddities and strange experiences:  that seems to be the goal in much of our travels. Interesting and eccentric encounters.  The truth is, we encounter situations almost daily which don’t quite make sense or seem outrageously odd. Here are a couple of inexplicable and peculiar moments that aren’t full stories in and of themselves, but somehow stick in my mind as potentially valuable lessons to problems that I have yet to encounter.

Zall, with a quizzical look, hard at work in Vietnam last year.

Zall, with a quizzical look, hard at work in Vietnam last year.

We were in a medium-sized town in Vietnam with seemingly nothing happening at all.  No people walking by, no kids playing in the fields, just flat concrete and dirt. It was the only village for quite some time, so we stopped to have lunch. Our family piled out of the van we were renting and sat in a small shop advertising pho (noodle soup) and other various local dishes. The shop had tile floors and a small group of guys were playing a card game in the corner and drinking beer. Being a long ride, I immediately went to the bathroom. Upon my return, the steaming pots of soup and a big plate of leafy vegetables that the family had ordered had already arrived and I sat down in front of my designated bowl. A man from the poker table walked over to where we sat and began speaking in a language far beyond our comprehension. He then sat next to me and put his arm over my shoulders – a friendly gesture in that area. But what happened next has perplexed me ever since. He leaned over towards the top of my head, his face flushed from the beer that I could smell on him. The cigarette between his lips dipped precariously towards my face, and he proceeded to smell my hair. Yes, smell my hair. He bent my head a bit sideways, stuck his nose right onto my scalp, and took in a big whiff.  He then looked at me with what I imagined to be an approving look, and with a smile and nod he walked back to his gang of card players. They all laughed and the meal went on like usual. I just sat there with a confused look on my face and laughed.  What was that all about?

At the restaurant, with the card players looking at us from the corner.  Smells good!

At the restaurant, with the card players looking at us from the corner. Smells good!

Going through borders in foreign countries can be rather strenuous. On my last trip through Asia, between the Vietnamese and Lao border, the border official ordered all of our bags to be searched. This isn’t uncommon as we are a bit unusual in the territory, but nevertheless slightly aggravating. We sighed and unstrapped all of our 8 bags – we’d done quite the recent shop – off the top of the bus. The officials went through everything until they hit the bag of medicine and toiletries. One of them then picked up a rectangular cardboard box and look at us mysteriously. He opened it and found a stack of wrapped paper cylinders within. He pulled one out and smelled it, like it might be a fine cigar.

An utterly absurd “only Zall” moment - riding a tricycle cart downstairs at one of our homestays - if he could have brought it home, he would have!  Notice his ever-present camera.

An utterly absurd “only Zall” moment – riding a tricycle cart downstairs at one of our homestays – if he could have brought it home, he would have! Notice his ever-present camera.

My mom was trying to best explain that the object he had chosen to question was a western-style tampon (they are not available in Laos) without embarrassing the guard – never a good idea with a police or military officer.  The questioning guard didn’t seem to understand English and we figured that hand signals would be inappropriate to use at the moment. My mom tried to explain that it was one of those “woman’s things,” but no one understood. Then guard then attempted to use sign language to ask if it contained something smokable, and he stuck the tampon between two fingers and pretended to smoke it. My dad then joined the conversation, shaking his head vigorously and continuing to search for simple words to explain.  Dad looked like he was working hard to suppress a laugh.  Another Vietnamese patrol officer then came up to the guard and said something to him. The guards expression tightened; he then shook his head and waved us through. To this day, I have no idea what was said or what the guard assumed, but we were quickly ushered through the border and into Vietnam with all our gear, including our “cigars.”

What our gear looks like when crossing a border.  Here, in the border town of Na Meo, Vietnam, Dad and Grandma patiently (!) wait to move onward.  Anyone going east?  Something always works out.

What our gear looks like when crossing a border. Here, in the border town of Na Meo, Vietnam, Dad and Grandma patiently (!) wait to move onward. Anyone going east? Something always works out.

Questionable Cuisine and a Lesson Learned – by Zall, age 15

Questionable Cuisine and a Lesson Learned – by Zall, age 15

In all my travel experiences, I donʼt think that Iʼve never regretted something more than I did that night in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I woke up in our hotel room after a night of taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of another country. Pain. Hurt. My head was light, my whole body ached. I fell out of my bed and tried to figure out where I was. The night was pitch-black except for a green blinking light in the corner of my vision. My sight was blurred. My body seemed to move without me telling it to.

Zall, our now 15-year-old photographer and "child-sherpa."

Zall, our now 15-year-old photographer and “child-sherpa.”

I have no recollection of the scene or any idea how I made it to the bathroom before I threw up. As if teleported, I was curled on a floor of sea-foam green tiles in front of the toilet. I had thrown up until there was nothing left but cramps – pain beyond anything Iʼd felt before. A few minutes later, one of my loud dry-heaves woke up my Dad. He came into the bathroom and did what little he could.

The night is choppy: like a bad film where you never really know whatʼs going on. I remember being boiling hot, my forehead was scalding and the temperature kept rising. My arms were shaking so intensely that I couldnʼt even take a drink from the luke-warm bottled water that we had in the room. At one point, I gave up and laid down on the floor spread out and felt the cool bathroom tiles on my bare back. I remember digging my nails into my arm so hard that my dad had to tell me to stop before I hurt myself. The night was long. Long. Long. Long. Eventually I ended up falling asleep on the tiles.

I woke a little while later and the sun was scorching through the windows. I remember the relief that spread through me when I could at last stand without my legs toppling under me and the joy that rushed through me when I realized the night was over.

Zall, at age 9, two days before the events of his story. This is a healthy, local meal of fresh fried frog!

Zall, at age 9, two days before the events of his story. This is a healthy, local meal of fresh fried frog!

What I had eaten the night before was not a strange bug. Not a bat, nor some chewy internal organ. Not even a chunk of dog or rat meat. Instead it was at a higher-end western style restaurant – a “fish and chips” deluxe meal, Australian-style. I know, shame on us, but sometimes the craving for a taste of home is overwhelming and we give in to our desires. Consider that a lesson learned.

Last summer I was fortunate to go with a group of classmates for a exploration of some of the sites of southern Mexico, Guatamala and Belize. I warned my friends many times not to eat the western food that we saw. Or drink from the tap like weʼd been told. Needless to say they didnʼt listen. I chose to eat local cuisine for every meal – I think I was the only one not to get diarrhea.

Whenever someone asks me for advise on how to keep healthy on a trip to a foreign country, there are two things that I tell them immediately. Donʼt drink anything but bottled water, and DO NOT eat the food that is trying to be the food you eat at home. The street-vendor food, which is cooked fresh right in front of you, is the healthiest and safest meal to have. If the locals eat it, its most likely safe; locals don’t like getting sick either. So while eating in alley-way markets may seem sketchy, I have never gotten sick from local food.

It’s Dark, We’re Lost, and My Parents Are Approaching Useless – by Zall, age 15

It’s Dark, We’re Lost, and My Parents Are Approaching Useless – by Zall, age 15

Zall, photo-journalist.

Zall, photo-journalist.

It was about 20 minutes into the walk and about a kilometer (or two) later that we realized we had absolutely no idea where we were. There was nothing along the road except empty water bottles and forest. My dad was losing his patience, and my mom was beginning to think about sleeping on the side of the road. Time to do the only thing that a traveler can do in that situation.

15 hours is a long time to sit on a bumpy, rundown, and stinky local bus. The Akha woman the next seat over has thrown up seven times out the window and you’re getting really bored of looking at the 100-kilogram bag of rice under your feet. The bus is packed full: there’s no way to change seats; even the aisles are crammed full of the locals, vegetables, and bags of charcoal. All that there is to eat is dried out local jerky of an unknown meat that was bought 3 days ago, and a stale bag of sticky rice. An angry growl emanates from your stomach, but if you eat any more of that food that you brought, you might need to trade places with the Akha woman next to you.

The highway to Phongsali, Laos.

The highway to Phongsali, Laos.

We arrived at about 9:00 pm – about the time that everyone goes to sleep – at the bus stop of Phongsali. The bus screeched to a halt and released some toxic vapor out of the muffler. The locals got off the bus and looked for their friends who had come to pick them up. In about 3 minutes, everyone had dispersed and all that was left in the “bus station” (really just a dirty chunk of pavement on the side of the road) was my family, a songtheaw (pick-up with benches) driver, and a small lady trying to sell us an unidentifiable dark fruit. We pulled our coats tighter – the temperature was really cold for a place with banana trees, perhaps 50 degrees. The songtheaw driver approached us with a smile and managed to get across that he will drive us to the town of Phongsali for 50,000 kip. So, of course, we take out our Lonely Planet guidebook. In the book it says that the bus station is just a short walk up the road from the town (how were we to know that the bus stop had been moved since the book was published?). 50,000 kip (6 dollars) – this was just an obvious scam that the driver was trying to pull on some westerners who looked lost. We declined the offer and set off down the road. As the last vehicle pulled out of the station, we were alone at 9:30pm in the pitch-black with two backpacks per personand barely any food. What could go wrong?

A Lao lady in a town en route to Phongsali peeling the wings and legs off of beetles in preparation for boiling and eating. A delicacy!

A Lao lady in a town en route to Phongsali peeling the wings and legs off of beetles in preparation for boiling and eating. A delicacy!

So here we are, having stumbled onward for a half hour. Dad has walked ahead of us muttering about bad maps and slow walkers. Mom had given up walking and was on the side of the road with that look that everyone’s mother develops: the “don’t mess with me or you will regret being born” kind of look. She was the one, after all, who had wanted to take the songtheaw. My brother is head-banging on the side of the road to a song he is thankfully keeping in his head, and I’m staring off into space imagining being home in my robe with a cup of hot chocolate and some brie cheese in front of the fireplace.

It seemed like a very long time until the echoing of a motor began to clap against the surrounding mountainside. We all stared hopefully at the bend 100 feet down the road. After several minutes, a car roared around the corner of the dirt road and stopped when we waved it down. Here is the part where the “language barrier” can be a problem. It took quite a few tries of sign language, English, and Lao before the message was clear: it would be a long walk to the town of Phongsali. The man smiled as we understood and motioned for us to get into his vehicle. Realizing that it would be getting into his car or sleeping on the side of the road, we opted for the vehicle. A 10-minute drive into town seemed like proof that the man really did know what he was talking about when he explained that it was a long walk. The driver refused payment for the ride, and dropped us off in town. My family stayed the night at a little guesthouse with bamboo mats for mattresses and rice and chicken for breakfast – much better than old jerky on the side of the road.

Downtown Phongsali, Laos, on a slow day.

Downtown Phongsali, Laos, on a slow day.

Sometimes as a traveler, it reaches the time to do the only thing that a traveler can do in certain situations: listen for the engine bouncing off the mountainside, and pray that a pair of headlights comes around the corner.

Market Pho and the “Bpaeng Neua Blues”, by Zall, age 15

Market Pho and the “Bpaeng Neua Blues”, by Zall, age 15

So the giants from the West walk into a local marketplace, and every head turns our way.  It’s not a usual sight to see a family of Americans traipsing through a community market. Smoke is heavy hanging under the canopy stretched above, and one or more of my family chokes on the homegrown tobacco fumes.  Small tables with even smaller chairs are placed around the open sided shelter in a somewhat orderly fashion and near the center table is a woman bent over a colossal steaming pot throwing herbs and garnishes into the behemoth of a vessel.  After the initial shock of four American intruders being present, commotion erupted again and the daily arguing, haggling, and chatting of the town’s most recent gossip ensued, mixed with talk of the strange new travelers (“falang” in Lao) now present in their midst.  We begin our walk over to the tables set up for breakfast, through the herb tables, past the meat section (trying to ignore the various organs, meats, birds, rodents, and dogs), and over to the great pot stewing in the center.

Eating breakfast pho, with grandma, in the Xam Tai market in NE Laos.

Eating breakfast pho, with grandma, in the Xam Tai market in NE Laos.

The woman cooking looks up to us with a confused look and says something in her local dialect that we don’t understand.  “Sii pho gai?” my mom asks.  The plump woman breaks out into a warm smile to reveal her horrible teeth and tilts her head back and releases a gale of amused laughter.  She sits us down at the nearest picnic-style table and heads back to her cooking table, chuckling to herself all the way.  As she adds more ingredients to the pot and telling everyone who would listen about what had just occurred, she takes out the clear bag of monosodium glutamate.  “Bo! Bo sai bpaeng neua!” My mom manages to say just in time to stop the cackling woman from dropping two heaping tablespoons of the white crystallized substance into each bowl.  The woman looks at my mom with even more disbelief and breaks out into an even louder howling.  The whole crowd around us bursts into laughter, and soon we joined in.

Another pho experience; this photo is from 2007.

After several minutes of the whole marketplace roaring with laughter, we wipe the accumulated tears from our eyes, and the cook serves us with four huge steaming piled bowls of chicken pho (pronounced pfuh guy).  Pho is a noodle soup with chunks of meat and an assortment of local herbs and spices dropped in.  You’re supposed to add various sauces that are provided on the table, but seeing as we can’t really read the labels on the bottles anyway (and they’re mostly salty), we tend to opt out of putting any of them into our bowls.  There is also always a huge heaping pile of fresh lettuce, mints, basil, and every other imaginable leaf that you are supposed to eat along with the soup.  Unfortunately, the leaves have been washed in local tap water or river water, which however safe it is for the locals to eat, we can’t because of all the different diseases that are in Laos’ water that aren’t in ours at home.

Dad took the first bite and gave us a look.  He mouthed the word salty. Our whole family groaned with disappointment.  When we asked for no MSG, the lady had assumed we would want more salt to compensate.  Caught up in our laughter, we had forgotten to ask for her not to add salt either (“bo sai gaena”).  The whole family drooped our heads; we do not like the copious amounts of salt and MSG that the Lao are so fond of.  Regretfully, I looked down at my soup to discover that I had also forgot to ask for no cilantro (“bo sai pak sinnali”), a thing that I despise in my food. Even the word “cilantro” makes my skin crawl. Oh well, I thought and gave into my hunger, doing my best to ignore the dreadful taste of my arch enemy vegetable and the salty soup. Next time, I’ll remember to ask….

…maybe…

Facing Life and Everything It Has To Offer, by Zall, 14

Facing Life and Everything It Has To Offer, by Zall, 14

I believe that every person must experience life to it’s fullest, especially when presented an opportunity, and accept all ideas with an open mind.

As a traveler, a student, a musician, and a human, I’ve experienced some extraordinary things.  I was once traveling by local bus on a long winding road for a 12-hour ride from Luang Prabang to Xam Neau in Laos when the bus screeched to an abrupt halt beside a complex of dimly lit shacks.  All the local folks streamed out of the bus and immediately dispersed like water into the many shops standing on the side of the road in formation, selling food items to the hungry travelers.  Four big white people tumbled out of the local bus and everyone looked up.  The spotlight was upon us.

Sipping silk worm poop tea – REALLY (with a mulberry smoothie chaser in reserve).

Sipping silk worm poop tea – REALLY (with a mulberry smoothie chaser in reserve).

My family and I cautiously stepped out of the vehicle, knowing all eyes were watching.  I was examining the food setup nearest us when I spotted one of those gifted moments.  A friendly, skinny man sat hunched over a monstrous bowl, overcrowded with a colossal mound of greasy bugs.  The kitchen fires and a single bare low-wattage fluorescent bulb behind the smiling man cast an eerie glow on the insects.  As I got closer to the mound of dead creatures, I realized the myriad of amazing shapes:  spiny, long, round, big, and small.  This was too good to be true!  A perfect opportunity had presented itself.  My family came up behind me and we all agreed:  we had to try some.  We purchased the insects from the ever-smiling man, and his grin grew, knowing we going to try something new.

My first pick was a large bamboo grub; the grease shone in the faint light and my stomach gave the usual “DON’T EAT THIS” feeling.  I closed my eyes.  Now or never.  I lifted the 3-inch grub to my mouth and took a deep breath.  I could smell it: greasy, fried, salty, and juicy.  The crowd that had accumulated around us became silent as we raised the greasy creatures to our mouths.  With a final turn of my stomach, my body gave in.  I put the grub in my mouth and bit down.  The shell gently crushed between my teeth and the insides squirted like a gusher into my mouth.  A river of grub juice ran over my tongue.  My mind started to comprehend what I’d just done, and my taste buds kicked in.

Chomping on a large bamboo grub in Laos a few years ago.

Chomping on a large bamboo grub in Laos a few years ago.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how incredibly gross it tasted:  the awful flavor – it’s slight tang resembling something sour and rotten; but this is what you think, because you’ve never tried it.

Like the time I tried “cooked” bat…  I’ll leave that taste to your imagination…  Or maybe the time I woke up and had water buffalo organs with whiskey and beer at 8:30 in the morning.

Or the time I tried rat….

Or dog.

People shoot down opportunities without even thinking of the possibility that they’ll like something.  If you don’t try something, you’ll never know what you missed.  Life is too short to give up an opportunity.  In truth, ten years later you’ll wish you had tried that beetle.  That is why I encourage every single one of you:  the next time you’re offered something different, strange or new, take a step back and think, will I regret not doing this in 10, 20, 50 years?  I encourage every single one of you to try something new because if you don’t take every opportunity in life and live it to the fullest, you’re not truly living your life.

In Between The Lines, by Zall, 14

In Between The Lines, by Zall, 14

Here’s the situation: I’m staring into a smiling man’s eyes.  He has horrible teeth and crooked glasses.  In his shaking hand, he offers me a glass of Lao-Lao (traditional rice whisky).  My brain freezes.  Can I?  Should I?  Would my parents be mad?  Would I insult my host?  I take in the smile on his face, the cautious look on my dad’s face, the hungry look on my mom’s face, and the oblivious look on my brother’s face.  I decide to take the shot of rice whisky.  Do I sip it?  Do I go bottoms up?  What would be appropriate?  My thoughts are whirling around in my head.  The look on my host’s face is encouraging.  What do I do?

Receiving a glass of beer with good wishes.

Receiving a glass of beer with good wishes.

In this situation I normally make some strange noise between a yes and a no and look at my parents for advice.  I’m 14, I’m underage; not supposed to drink until I’m 21.  My parents look distracted and they may have had one too many Lao-Lao:  mom’s cheeks are getting rosy and dad’s stupid grin is trying to refuse another drink… they won’t be too much help.  If I drink will I test my families’ boundaries?  If I don’t, will I insult my host?

I’m in a strange place in my life.  I am both a child and an adult.  Both international and American.  Both traveler and student.  What seem like simple questions can, in reality, be confusing and controversial cultural conundrums. When do I sit down or stand?  Do I eat or wait for my host?

One of several Lao-Lao toasts at the Basi ceremony – this one from Suk, who hosted the Basi for us.

One of several Lao-Lao toasts at the Basi ceremony – this one from Suk, who hosted the Basi for us.

Sukkavit is a good friend in the village of Xam Tai, Laos who we go to see every time we travel.  When we meet, it may be for the first time in almost a year.  This year, she looks so short.  So do I offer the formal way of saying hello by cupping each other’s hand or bowing?  Or are we good enough friends to hug or put our arms around each other?  In truth, we normally end up in some awkward position of one of us extending our hands while the other attempts a hug.  Luckily, Lao is a fairly relaxed country as far as customs go.

These questions arrive multiple times a day in the travel-world, and truthfully, the guidebooks can only tell you so much.  When you’re facing a cultural or social issue, your mind stops working.  In the end, you wind up staring into your host’s eyes with a blank look until he puts the glass in your hand and begins a toast.