Phout’s Man-Woman Shaman Shawls, and Phout Finally Learns My Name

Our ethic for our 10 years as Above the Fray has always been to minimize our impact as to what the weavers of the region choose as design, preferring that they reach into their creative talent and traditions as opposed to chase what they may think will sell well in a western-style market that they have not met.

Two of Maren's good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

Two of Maren’s good friends: Phout on the left, and Souksakone on the right. Both are leading textile weavers, dyers and designers in Houaphon Province

This last year we broke that rule, and we’re glad we did!

Phout, a master-weaver and dyer who lives in Houaphon Province, Laos, had woven several gorgeous all-silk “man-woman” healing cloths some years ago. We have found this traditional style of shaman’s shawl (in Lao, phaa sabai) to be uniquely attractive.

The “man-woman” phaa sabai is a complex silk of three contiguous panels: the two end panels are woven in the discontinuous supplemental weft style with the center panel left in plain-weave with no supplemental decoration. The two end panels are of identical design, yet one side has received a full spectrum of supplemental colors to highlight the motif-patterns, while the other side is left in only two muted colors that seem to hide the design. The weavers smile when they tell us that the vibrant, complex side represents the spirit of the female, while the “simple” side represents the spirit of the male.

Phout models one of the man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.

Phout models one of the 100%  silk man-woman phaa sabai we had ordered.  The silk is locally-raised, and Phout did the natural-dye work herself.

A local healer would traditionally use such a cloth as a tool to gain access to the “spirit world” to perform a healing, whether the injury were physical, mental or spiritual. The “man-woman” expression is symbolic of the need for humans to have spiritual balance within themselves; a lack of well-being would be a confirmation that one’s “life-force” is in need of repair.

Phout had indicated that this complex design was not finding a niche in the marketplace, and that a weaver’s time was better spent on other designs that the tourist markets were finding more profitable (phaa sabai cloths require a lot of hand-reeled silk and time on the loom).

Another "man-woman" healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

Another “man-woman” healing cloth from the same region; the weaver is the model.

“But they are so beautiful, and traditional,” blurted out Maren. Phout rolled her eyes. But the truth is obvious: if it doesn’t sell, then it cannot take up the valuable time of the weaving experts.

So we ended up “ordering” that she ask one of her finest weavers to weave an older man-woman healing cloth design Phout has in her archives, in three different ground colors.

They are stunning! Even Phout was excited about how they came out. Yes, we paid a bit of a premium for the “special order,” but we believe they will sell well in the emerging international market, and perhaps create some momentum for this style of traditional cloth to remain relevant in the styles of cloth that the master-weavers perceive the market will support.

Phout is a wonderful energy and loves to laugh, and she and Maren have a sister-like affection for each other. Every time we get together we soak in each other’s company and, thanks to our translator Mai (who is a childhood friend of Phout’s), we can share thoughts and stories.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk "man-woman" healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Another 100% natural-dyed silk “man-woman” healing cloth modeled by the weaver.

Here is the tale, appropriate perhaps for the political season, of Phout finally learning how to pronounce my name:

“Djozhhh,” Phout strained.

“Yes, ‘Josh’,” I affirmed in English, adding a quick “Chou, chou.” (Yes, yes.)

Again I pushed my lips into an open pucker, and slowly rolled as long a “j” sound as the consonant can have in English, followed by a quick “ah,” and ending with the soft extended “shhhhhh,” of a librarian. Then said slowly again: “J- j-o-shhhhhhhh.”

I paused a brief second, then pushed my name out a bit faster: “Josh.”

Phout focused. She started with a buzzing “dzzzz” and then puckered to an English “j.” She held the sound and rolled her eyes towards me for confirmation.

Phout's aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman's traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the "man-woman" style.

Phout’s aunt, Sukkhavit, dons a shaman’s traditional healing cloth; this one is not of the “man-woman” style, but is equally stunning.

I tried to infuse some optimism into her by widening my eyes, and I offered a quick “jo-” sound, to indicate that our “j” sound needs to jump straight to the “ah”, and that the consonant cannot be “buzzed” like the “z” in “azure.”

Phout jumped off her “dz,” shot across a long “ahhhh” and landed back on the “dz” sound again. “Dz-aah- dzzzz.” she enunciated in a fizzle. “Dj-dj-aaaah-zhhhhhh,” she echoed again, nearly begging for approval.

It was our friend Bounkeo, smiling at Phout’s side, who came to the rescue. “Djahshh,” he blurted to her matter-of-factly. She then she repeated after him a shorter, closer “Djahshh.”

Bounkeo threw out his version again, and Phout again repeated it.

“Chou, chou,” Bounkeo smiled. “Djahshh.” and he raised his eyebrows, and he paused a beat: “uh…. Djahshh Buzhhhh.”

Phout laughed with the insight.  “Chou, chou… Djahshh Buszhhh – Am-er-i-ca!  Chou, chou. Djahshh Buzhhh.”

Here Phout dons another style of a "shaman's shawl." Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

Here Phout dons another style of a “shaman’s shawl.” Her design and dye work is some of the finest in the world. She has 50 weavers who work under her direction.

An Akha Spinning Tale

The muddy path was literally steaming. The brief monsoon downpour had been followed by the re-emergence of the close, tropical sun, and all three of us – Maren, our local guide Tui, and I – wiped our brows as we trudged up the hill to the small Akha-Puli village. It was only a one-kilometer walk from the sealed road, but the slippery path and inescapable humidity were quickly wearing us down.

The Akha-Puli spinner.

The Akha-Puli spinner.

We rounded one last corner and welcomed the sight of the first thatched-roof homes of the village. Tui smiled and waved to a woman sitting on the bamboo porch of the first home. As we approached, Tui greeted her: “Udu-tamah.” She squinted and then smiled at the unusual sight of two 50-something westerners negotiating the slick slope in their flip-flops and a non-Akha guide speaking Akha (albeit, Tui admits, with a heavy accent). We could see she had a wooden spindle in her hands, but she laid it down as we approached.

The woman wore her traditional silver-decorated headdress and a well-worn, handspun, indigo-dyed cotton skirt. A commercial acrylic scarf wrapped over her shoulder and around her back to hold an infant.

The Akha-Puli woman winds her spindle

The Akha-Puli woman winds her spindle

She excused herself for a moment, disappeared into her home, and re-emerged wearing a sleeveless factory-made spaghetti-strap shirt to cover her bare chest. She swung the small child around onto her back again and wrapped a printed towel around the both of them. We sat in silence for a few moments catching our breath. We smiled and nodded toward the spindle, encouraging her to continue with her work. She pointed one hand at Maren and the other at me and then placed her hands together, inquiring if we were “together.” We confirmed we were a couple and had two sons, now grown. Through Tui, we learned that she had 6 children, two boys and four girls, the youngest of whom was on her back. We told her we were Americans visiting the beauty of their village and that we were enthusiasts about traditional textiles.  She nodded with every careful word Tui translated.

She adjusted her headdress and picked up the thin, wooden center-whorl spindle she had earlier set aside. With her left fingers, she stretched the white fiber she was working with up and away from her standing body. She adjusted the floss-like material between the fingers of her right hand, and then hooked it onto a notch cut into the top of the spindle. With her right hand, she pressed the pencil-thin spindle against her skirt with her palm and rolled the spindle downward against her thigh; the elegant spindle dropped and danced an inch from the ground in perfect vertical balance, twisting the fiber suspended from her left hand. After a few seconds of spin, she reached down and grabbed the spindle with her right fingers, one finger deftly knocking the fiber out of the notch and then manually wound the new-spun material onto the spindle.

Maren takes her turn.

Maren takes her turn.

Seamlessly, the woman reached down with her left hand and grabbed another strand of material. With her right, she split the now-spun material with her fingernail, making an “eye-hole” about two inches from the fiber’s end. The new strip slipped precisely through the hole. With her right thumb and forefinger, and using a quick one-two motion, she rubbed the new material and the right side of the eyehole together and then reversed the spin, winding the half-strip and the full new strip back over the left side of the original thread. The material was spliced tightly. She pulled the clingy new length out and away from her body, and then repeated the leg rub, the drop of the spindle, and the tidy wrap.

Our eyes wandered to the source of this white fiber: it appeared to be coming out of a stained 50-kilo plastic rice bag that lay on the bamboo-slat decking. Maren reached down to open the bag.

She stopped, then smiled. The fiber, indeed, was the bag, and she was expertly spinning the 3 foot (1 m) long fiberglass threads. Maren laughed. The woman nodded and laughed with her.

The Akha-Puli woman spins her "thread."

The Akha-Puli woman spins her “thread.”

”What are you making?” we asked through Tui. The two exchanged words, and then Tui turned to us.

“She is making a carrying bag.” And, of course, we had a flood of other questions. Yes, they still spun cotton, when it was in season, but not as much as before. Pre-made clothing was readily and cheaply available, as evidenced by her knit shirt and the children’s commercially-made clothing. But yes, her own skirt was spun and then woven of locally-grown cotton that had been indigo-dyed.

A few years ago, she explained, she would have used the wild-grown piat vine as material for this current project, but it took a long time to find, strip and splice the wild vine before then hand-knotting its threads into a purse. These “pre-shaped” plastic strips were free, available … and even waterproof! She reached into a plastic bag set on the ground and handed Maren a ball of expertly-spun fiberglass stripping.

"Harder than it looks."

“Harder than it looks.”

The woman proudly stepped forward and handed Maren the spindle. She said some words, which we assumed meant: “It’s your turn.”

To the delight of the family, Tui and the growing group of curious children, Maren spent the next few minutes learning the fine art of spinning and splicing fiberglass the Akha-Puli way. Everyone laughed at her initial awkwardness – Maren most of all – but the woman patiently helped her with splicing the fiber, rolling the spindle against her leg to get the quick spin, and then letting the spindle fall and twirl at just the right height. A moment’s pause – then the quick hand-winding to a tidy bundle. Everyone cheered when success was finally achieved, and Maren took a formal bow.

The woman reached up and grabbed Maren’s shoulder and laughed an outpouring of words. Tui smiled: “She says now you are an Akha woman!”  And we all laughed again.

Me Tau Lu (Grandmother Lu)

Me Tau Lu  (Grandmother Lu)

The elderly woman, intently concentrating on the narrow weaving set on the full frame loom in front of her, chewed on her gums as her thin, brittle fingers deliberately tied the supplemental colors onto a row of silk weft. Her hands, knuckles slightly swollen with arthritis, reached automatically for the shuttle and she deftly tapped the shuttle across the top of the weft threads, adding another silk-thin length to the narrow skirt border she was weaving. The 5-inch wide strip, upon completion, would be sewn onto the bottom of a Lao skirt (phaa sinh) for colorful decoration and as protection of the larger skirt body during wear.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

Me Tai Lu (Grandmother Lu) proudly displaying the sinh she wove.

She glanced up at our faces briefly, and I held up my small camera with raised eyebrows in a silent appeal for permission to film. She gave a quick nod and then, with her concentration seemingly doubled, she sharpened her posture and returned to the methodical and creative task of turning nature’s silkworm thread into beauty and spirit. I pushed the start button and began to archive her talent.

She licked her lips and set a firm and consistent pace as the camera studied her deliberate and smooth motions. Her deep moist eyes measured every finger’s measured movement.

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This is a loom set up like Me Tai Lu’s loom. The black warp threads are primary; the white warp threads is the supplemental warp. The vertical tan threads are the pattern template (khao ti dai)..

The woman was working with the silk raised in the village where she lived, which is known for its sericulture. Her pattern template (khao ti dai), the web of “instructions” that assured every weft line was accurately formed, was made of a coarser string, no doubt because it was easier to feel and manipulate with her worn fingers. The design required surprisingly intricate finger motions in applying the supplemental colors, and the shapes of the textile’s woven motifs were knife-edge precise. She worked her fingers in an even rhythm. Perhaps her fingers were a little slower than that of a nimble 20-year-old, but her measured precision, molded by 70 or more years of practice, revealed an adept efficiency that was a pleasure to watch. She wove for 3 minutes in focused silence as I filmed her from a variety of angles and zoomed in on her patient, trained finger-work.

I clicked off the camera and casually bowed my head with my hands together under my chin as a traditional “Thank you.”

I caught the surprise in the eyes of a young woman as she watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.

A young woman intently watches Maren and Me Tai Lu chat.

 

“She is the oldest woman in the village.” Mai’s voice surprised me – I had no idea she had crept up on us. Mai, our friend and translator, had grown up in a nearby town, and she had relatives in this village and had known this woman, at least casually, for over 40 years. (Mai seems to have relatives in just about every village in Houaphon Province!)

“Her name is Lu. We call her Me Tau Lu, Grandmother Lu,” said Mai and she turned and asked a question of the old woman. The elder stopped her concentration, smiled toothlessly at us, and returned a sentence.

“She says she is over eighty year old,” Mai continued. “She does not know exactly how old, but she can remember back longer than anyone else. She wonders if you would like to see a piece she has finished. Perhaps you would like to buy it?”

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Maren and Zall in the village in Houaphon Province, Laos where Me Tau Lu has lived her 80+ years.

“Of course we would like to see your finished piece.” Maren answered. The elder turned to a young boy who had been watching and gave sharp directions. He dashed off, only to appear a moment later with a tidily folded sinh, or Lao skirt, held flat in his hands.

Through Mai, we learned that this skirt had been made a few years ago, back when her fingers were more nimble and her eyesight sharper. Given the sinh’s size and intricacy, it took two or more months to weave.

She stood up from her worn wooden loom-bench and took the fabric from the boy’s outstretched arms. She shuffled into the sunshine and, after again straightening her posture, she wrapped the skirt tightly across her belly to show off the intricate pattern.

And indeed it was, and is, a stunning 100% silk sinh woven from silk that had been raised, and naturally-dyed, in this very village.   The pattern – seen in the photo – was an older style and a less common skirt form, especially for its vertical stripes. (Most skirts resemble the design worn by the woman in the background of the photo.) The central motif of her sinh was also less common: the crab, which lives (and is hunted) in the clear freshwater rivers.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworms that are puinned to a board.  The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

Our friend and translator Mai (in the green) and a seri-culture expert looking at the silkworm cocoons that are attached to the board. The worms are in the stage where they are actually making the precious silk.

“Did she spend her childhood here?” Maren asked through Mai.

“Yes,” Me Tai Lu answered as she posed. “I was born in this village, and I raised my children and grandchildren and now their children here, too.”

“What else do you remember?”

“I remember the French [who occupied the region until 1953], when they visited us here. They came a couple of times, and were very nice – and tall, too. They walked down the street and shook the hands of the men. I thought they were very kind.”

“Do you remember the war?”

“Oh, yes. I remember the bombs and the sounds that they made. We had to move our entire home into some caves that are over that way,” and she waved her hand toward the lush limestone hills. “We worked the fields at night then, planting and harvesting the rice.” Her voice was firm, and she looked directly at us as she spoke. “I had young children then. Now they are grown up and old, too” she laughed. “Two of them now live in Vientiane (Laos’ capital), and one lives here.”

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

The cocoons are put into boiling water for about a minute before the silk is hand-reeled.

Maren eyes Me Tau Lu’s skirt, still stretched across her waist, and says to the woman in Lao, “Sinh, nyam lai.” Skirt, very beautiful. The woman turned towards me, pointed to my camera and stiffened herself. She held a firm face for the photo; smiles are reserved for present, shared moments, not moments frozen in time. I snapped the shot you see here.

The woman flipped a quick few words to Mai, who smiled. “Mae Tau Lu asks if you want to buy this sinh. It is for sale.”

Chou, chou!” Maren blurts out, turning directly to the weaver. “Um … Me Tau Lu, sinh to dai?” Skirt how much?

The elder offered Maren a big grin and nodded her head up and down. The two of them took perhaps 15 seconds to agree to a price. Maren does know her Lao numbers well.

Perhaps the price was just a little high for the “going rate” in the region, but, on the other hand, this silk carries a certain provenance knowing it represents a culmination of a lifetime of skill and effort and participation. Its very manifestation harbors an element of her precious uniqueness, her vital and relevant breath. Each unique, handwoven textile does carry the spirit of its creator.

We paid the proud weaver in cash, as always. She counted the bills carefully and folded them into the waistband at the top of her own faded sinh.

The woman looked directly at Maren and tossed out another line.

Mai laughed. “She wants to now if you want to see another phaa (silk textile) she wove.”

Yes, of course.

The Basket Weaver

The Basket Weaver

The elderly gentleman sat on the corner of the second-story outdoor deck that led to his home’s entrance, his eyes focused on the bamboo basket that sat half-finished in his lap. Like all the village’s older homes, his sat on 8-foot stilts; under the home were the tools of life: a wooden plow, a warped loom, a pile of drying rough-sawed boards, a gas-powered rice thresher, a motorcycle, and several baskets covered with dark cloth.

The basket weaver.

The basket weaver.

“Sabaidee,” I said and I brought my hands briefly together under my chin, and then I waved hello. The wave caught his eyes and he smiled. “Sabaidee,” I repeated more confidently. The man brought his hands together as well, and then waved his left hand over his ear and gave a shake, indicating that could not hear. Maren pointed to her eyes and then to his basket, and then made a swooping gesture that inquired if we could come up and join him. The old man grinned widely and waved us up the steep ladder-steps to the deck.

It has become our routine when initially visiting a village to just walk through the narrow paths that weave around the thatch-roofed homes and sheds seeking anyone who is engaged in getting something done – perhaps a weaver at the loom, or someone fixing a fishing net or running a billows. There is no such thing as trespassing – the village is open to everyone – and it only takes a eye-contact and a smile for a stranger to receive the same in return.  This moment brought us a basket-weaver.

The basket weavers village in Meung Kuan district of Houaphon Province, Laos

The basket weaver’s village in Meung Kuan district of Houaphon Province, Laos

Mai, our dear friend (and today, translator), and Maren and I took off our flip-flop sandals, climbed the well-worn ladder-steps and took a seat on the untreated bench. The man smiled and nodded. Maren reached over to feel the bamboo strip he was weaving together, and the man proudly held up his loosely woven broad basket – it was the style of basket used for raising silkworms. I took out my camera and lifted it in his direction, asking if a photo was permissible. He nodded ok, straightened his back, and, masking himself with a most studious look, determinedly went back to the weaving task while we snapped a few shots.

“Hal-lo,” said a disembodied voice, and then a younger man came out from the home’s second-floor entry. “Sabaidee,” all three of us guests replied, again with hands pressed together. The man spoke quickly in Lao, first thanking us for visiting. Mai translated: “My father had been a soldier in The War as a young man when he lost his hearing. Please excuse him.”

Josh visits with the basket weaver..

Josh visits with the basket weaver.

The elder watched his son and nodded, smiling, and then began: “As a young man I was a soldier in The War,” the elder said directly to us in a loud voice. “But I can no longer hear. A large bomb went off very close to me. After the war, doctors tried to fix my ears, but they cannot..” He looked away from us. “I saw a doctor in Vietnam, and another in China. But no one can fix it.”

The son’s wife appeared from inside the house with a plastic tray holding four rinsed glasses and a plastic pitcher of water.   She poured three glasses, and Mai, Maren, and I each reach for one. It is hot, dusty, and humid, and the water is welcome. [And yes – Maren tossed me a crinkled-eyebrow that warned: “Hope we don’t get ‘the runs’.” Etiquette can demand a little risk-taking sometimes.]

A clutch of stunning old Tai Daeng storage baskets woven of bamboo, and probably about 30 years old.

A clutch of stunning old Lao Loum storage baskets woven of rattan, bamboo, and wood, and about 50 years old.

The elder returned his gaze toward us and smiled again: “I am not sad, however. I have a good life. I have two sons, each is married with a family. I have been a farmer, and we have been well.”

We nodded at each other and Maren, in stilted but surprisingly adept Lao, told him – quite loudly towards his ear – our names, where we were from, that we had two sons in college (but no daughter-in-laws yet), and that, while we had visited Houaphon Province many times, never his village. He smiled, and, well, perhaps understood us. The son and daughter-in-law shared about their children, who were at school or elsewhere working at this hour. Water glasses were refilled.

The basket weaver's daughter-in-law shows off their crop of maturing silkworms.

The basket weaver’s daughter-in-law shows off their crop of maturing silkworms being raised under the house.

Maren and I refocused our attention on the basket that sat in the elder’s lap and asked,  “How did you learn to weave baskets?” Mai translated our question for the son, who then literally yelled the question in his father’s ear. The elder nodded emphatically and told us his father had taught him, before the War. “Now that I am old, like my father was, farming the rice fields is more difficult, and so I spend time on these small tasks.“

He looked away again, but continued to talk to us through his son: “I am sorry I cannot hear you well. But even the doctor in China could not fix me.” He looked back and we nodded at each other, and he looked away again. “The bomb – it landed very close, and I was thrown through the air and landed in the dirt. Everything was suddenly covered with dirt, and I did not know if I was still alive. I could not feel anything.” He paused.

We all paused. In the still heat, we listened to the buzz of a nearby cicada. “I did not know even if I still had my arms and legs attached. I could not tell. I was covered in dirt.”

He gaze shifted back to us: “I was very lucky.” His smile returned. “I still had both of my arms, and both of my legs.  So I could still be a farmer. I only lost my hearing, which the doctors cannot fix. And I am well. I have raised a family and have a good life.” More nods.

Mai and the family exchanged a few sentences left untranslated, and we then excused ourselves to let the family get back to their tasks.

Maren checks out the crop for the upcoming silk-weaving season.

Maren checks out the crop for the upcoming silk-weaving season.

Once down the ladder-steps, the daughter-in-law took Maren by the elbow and showed us the silk worms that sat in the already-woven bamboo baskets in the shade of the home. The 3-inch white worms – several hundred per basket which looked to be happily chewing on mulberry leaves – were just a few days from when they would begin to spin their precious thread.  The Spring crop’s strands will be harvested – then spun, dyed, and woven –  starting in just a few weeks.

We thanked our hosts, who in turn thanked us, and then we all thanked each other again. We wave a quick “sabaidee” with the hands towards the old man on the deck, who nods but keeps his own hands busy with the bamboo.

Then we turned and continued our afternoon’s walk in the village.

Our Xam Tai Family

Our Xam Tai Family

Our family has had the great fortune to become good friends and business partners with the world's finest natural silk artists who live in the Xam Tai dictrict iof Houaphon Province in NE Laos.

Our family has had the great fortune to become good friends and business partners with the world’s finest natural silk artists who live in the Xam Tai district in NE Laos.

In July, I caught myself doing something I thought I would never do. Maren and I were in the village of Xam Tai in Houaphon Province, NE Laos – our favorite re-visiting spot on all our ventures. The usual crew of weavers, dyers and local leaders – our friends – had trundled to a small restaurant on the banks of the Nam Xam (Xam River) where we could watch the sunset and have a drink to welcome the evening cool. Maren and I had just ordered another round of grilled duck meat and several bottles of BeerLao for anyone with an appetite and an empty glass. Of course the karaoke machine was on (no, the recent addition of electricity to Xam Tai did not improve every aspect of life). The vice governor of the region had just finished singing a Lao pop song – leading elders almost always seem to have the smoothest richest voices – when a cheer went up, and he handed the microphone to Maren and me.

Phout models one of her "man-woman" healing cloths. Phout is known for her rich purples and reds.

Phout models one of her exquisite “man-woman” healing cloths. Phout is known for her rich purples and reds.

What to do? Neither one of us has a singing voice others really want to hear. I looked for help from, well anyone. “I don’t know any Lao songs,” I pleaded. Mai translated and everyone laughed. “Wait!” Mai announced in English. “We have American songs too.” Oh, no. The first was a Phil Collins song I had never heard. Perhaps Maren and I had escaped – but no. “We have one other,” Mai laughed. Yep – and for anyone who has traveled through the weird corners of the planet, the second song option will be an “of course.” A song so well-known we knew we could no longer avoid the inevitable. The lyrics play across the bottom of the console and Maren and I charge into the song that is a good half register too high for our voices:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair,

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…

What is it about The Eagles anyway… and “Hotel California” is what – 40 years old?

We finally and thankfully finish – the locals, some with unevenly-raised eyebrows, cheer as they would cheer any performer. The microphone is passed to another and we return to Lao pop music.

Sukavit and Maren in 2007 - our second visit. Sukavit, a village elder and "most-determined social-leader," took it upon herself to full-heartedly welcome us into the community, which opened up so many doors for us. She and Maren are "two peas in a pod."

Sukavit and Maren in 2007. Sukavit, a village elder and “most-determined social-leader,” took it upon herself to full-heartedly welcome us into the community, which opened up so many doors for us. She and Maren are truly “two peas in a pod.”

Our family of four – mom, dad, and then 13-year-old Ari and 10-year-old Zall – first visited this region of Laos in 2006. A blurb in the Lonely Planet Guidebook briefly mentioned the quality silk artistry that local minority groups were famous for. But on our first visit we were backpack tourists, and only a dim spark of the fantasy of an import textile business had been lit.

Our memories of whom we met on that first 3-day visit are vague – who thought we would ever return? Xam Tai itself had only an hour a day of electricity and a single mildew-y $4/night guesthouse. Westerners were rare as the town is at an endpoint of a narrow sealed road. Only a rutted track continued into the jungle hills.

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Phout, our son Zall, and Phout’s aunt, Sukavit model new silks in Sukavit’s home. Photo from 2009.

Now, after a “dozen plus” visits, Xam Tai feels like home. Sukavit, a 60’ish village elder and the first to invite us to join the village socially, now carries a few more lines on her face. She has recently handed the “reins of power” to her niece, Phout, who is a master-dyer and weaver, and also a very sharp business-woman. Phout, well-known for her deep purple and maroon-toned silks, carries waves of wonderful ebullient energy and a raucous sense of humor; she and Maren have formed a deep friendship over the years. And the party always begins when Phout arrives!

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Souk’s masterpieces consistently represent the finest dyeing and weaving in the region. Souk continues to develop new natural dyes and woven art using traditional methods, materials and motifs.

Souksakone, the acknowledged best dyer in the Xam Tai region and who has presented to us what we believe to be the world’s finest and most intricate naturally-dyed silks, now opens up her home to us when we arrive and we share all meals. Three years ago Souk and her husband built their own small guesthouse (some of the funding for this came from our customers!), complete with air conditioning. Yes, here in 2014 Xam Tai now has 24/7 electricity, bringing with it a world of refrigerators, washing machines and florescent bulbs (allowing for weaving after dark). Sousakone and Phout have been best friends since childhood, although we do sense a prideful and serious competition.

A local bus getting ready for the 6-hour drive from Xam Neua to Xam Tai.

A local bus getting ready for the 6-hour drive from Xam Neua to Xam Tai.

Phout and Sukavit also grew up with Mai, who was one of the very few locals to be able to achieve a secondary, and then college education. Mai, who once taught college-level English in Laos’ capital city, is now the Director of Tourism Development for Houaphon Province. We met Mai in 2008 when she was able to offer us her translating skills on our third visit to Xam Tai – she herself got to return to her home village that she had not visited in many years and was enthusiastically greeted by, well… everyone. It was Mai who introduced us socially to Phout and Souk as her very good friends. [Sukavit, on the other hand, has no problems ever introducing herself to a visitor.] And for whatever reason, Phout, Souk, Mai and Maren have formed a tight and real bond – like 4 sisters. So much laughter, and sharing, and good meals, and smiles, and some business…

Much of Xam Tai district is rugged and wild, and home to the Nam Sam Wilderness Area.

Much of Xam Tai district is rugged and wild, and home to the Nam Sam Wilderness Area.

Now Mai (and her 11-year-old son Bingo) visit Xam Tai at least once a year – when we visit (and hire her translating services). Perhaps because we bring both cash and Mai back to Xam Tai regularly that the entire village has adopted us. We owe much to Mai for bridging the communication gap that hinders most cross-cultural relationships; her seamless translating makes an entire roomful of weavers and dyers and husbands and kids feel like family.

Maren in Xam Neua on our first visit in 2006. Maren literally bought the basket off this woman's back!

Maren in Xam Neua on our first “buying-visit” (and second formal visit) in 2007. Maren literally bought the basket off this woman’s back!

A quick word on friendship in Houaphon – it is a deeply felt and enduring commitment. Initially several of our Xam Tai friends hesitated to reciprocate our social efforts –westerners are known to come, and then go. It was about the fifth visit, all with our kids in tow (and once, even Josh’s 80 year-old mom), that people started to believe we could be counted on to keep the bonds of friendship vital. But once you proclaim a true friendship – once you look into someone’s eyes and tell them you like them and want to share – that friendship becomes deep and real, and it comes with obligations of trust. It is a commitment, and that recognition allows for a meaningful connection with someone who seems so different on the surface, but is so close at heart. There is comfort, clarity and contentment with a trusted friend. It is perhaps the greatest gift that humans can share. It runs all we truly hold dear.

DSC_9680

Good friends: Bonkeo (Lun’s husband), Lun, Phout, Maren, Souk, Mai and Josh. Lun, Phout and Souk are the region’s leading dye-and weaving experts and business-persons. Mai, childhood friends of these artists, is able to translate so very well!

Other wonderful artists and village characters have been introduced to us over the years: Lun (another most talented master-dyer), the Vilays (who always have a couple unusual textiles), the vice governor of the district and his extended family, the elders in the near-by silk-raising village of Ban, sweet Chola (whom we wrote about on our blog in April 2012) – these are member of our family now, and, like other loved ones, we find ourselves looking so forward, every time, to a shared time.

We plan to return this March. We will again be eager to share the stories of our kids (now in college) and our homes, to share a Lao – and we’ll bring an American-style – dinner, to play a little petanque (bocci ball) while sipping the local home-brewed lao-lao. Maren and I will ”ooooh and ahhhh” over the newest silks; Souk will share her newest created hue and design element; Phout’s eyes will get huge and her voice will jump an octave as she narrates some story that will have everyone laughing until tears flow; the vice governor will work to improve our Lao vocabulary so Mai doesn’t have to be the go-between every time; Bingo will again beg first-dibs on having the chicken’s head in his dinner bowl; a few pillowy clouds will lazily cross the deep green of the valley lending brief reprieve to the jungle sun.

And we will smell the comfort of knowing we really are in the right place at the right time with the right people.

Phout of Houaphon Province, Laos

Phout of Houaphon Province, NE Laos

Our good friend, Phout, wearing one of her healing cloths (phaa phi mon).

We are in Houaphan Province in NE Laos, getting ready for a dinner with our weaving and dyeing friends.  A dozen or so people are already at Souk’s house, the women chatting quietly while chopping garlic and ginger for dinner’s preparation, and the men sharing another bottle of Beer Lao.  Then a motorcycle revs into the front, carrying Phout (pronounced “put” with a little bit of an “h” after the “p”) and her husband.  Phout charges in, wrestles her too-small helmet off her tied-up hair, and, eyes glowing and teeth exposed, says something in a loud voice that ends with a high-pitched “ooo-eee”; everyone laughs, including us.  Phout grabs Maren’s shoulders and gives a quick hug, then offers her outstretched hand to Josh and the boys for a firm deliberate handshake.  She continues to talk quickly and loudly and again the room erupts in laughter.

Mai, who grew up with Phout and Souk (rhymes with “book”) but later learned English, offers us a quick translation for Phout’s paragraphs of gushing and animated energy.  “She says” Mai manages through her laughter, “she says she is so glad to see all of you, and she wishes you to celebrate with us that we are together again.”  There is a moment of quiet when the English is spoken.  A dozen smiling heads bob as if hearing a toast.  The room catches a breath and Phout reaches for a short glass of Beer Lao offered from her smiling husband.  She raises the glass slightly in both hands, does a quick, honorable dip to acknowledge the celebration, and drains the glass quickly so, as tradition holds, it can be refilled and passed to the next person.  She shakes her hand at the men pouring the beer and says something spiritedly – the tone alone meant “Get this glass moving.  This party has officially begun.”  And we all laugh again.

Sharing a meal at Souk's home.  From left to right: Ari, Maen, Josh's mom Joy, Zall, Sukavit (expert weaver and village elder), Phout (blue shirt), and an edge of Souk's face.

Sharing a meal at Souk’s home. From left to right: Ari, Maren, Josh’s mom Joy, Zall, Sukavit (expert weaver and village elder), Phout, Mai (our translator, friend and a childhood friend of Phout and Souk), and master-dyer Souk.

Phout is an expert dyer and weaver.  As is often the tradition in this region, the dyer is at the ‘’hub” of the weaving process.  She obtains the raw silk, dyes it using only traditional natural dyes, and then distributes the prepared silk and pattern-templates to the area’s best weavers.  A single piece may take a weaver several months to create. These weavers then return the completed textiles to, in this case, Phout, who will be responsible for getting them to a market.  Phout is renown for her rich purples and vibrant color-play. She is also a savvy business-woman, ensuring that everyone from silk-raiser to weaver is fairly compensated.  She is also eager to connect the regional talent and her silk products to a world market.A smoky day in Houaphon; "slash and burn" agriculture is still a common method of farming in rural NE Laos.

Maren and Phout have become, for lack of a better word, “sisters.”  We all met in 2006 quite by accident as we were touring the region as a family.   We fell in love with the area, and the textiles, and … well, the people as well, like Phout and Souk.  Their honesty, warmth, and open friendship has enriched us so much. These women are also central to many of the highest quality silk weavings that Above the Fray – or anyone in the world for that matter – can offer.

Maren’s recent (as in two weeks ago!) trip to Bangkok and Vientiane brought Phout and her together again, this time in the urban setting of Vientiane, Laos’ capital, and here is her “friendship report.”  [Maren promises more on the Textile Symposium itself soon!]

 

Maren’s Report from Laos, November, 2013: Celebrating with Phout in the City

During my recently-completed trip to Bangkok for the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles Symposium 2013:  Weaving Royal Traditions Through Time, I took a side trip to Vientiane, Laos, where Phout met me for a few days of laughter, textiles, and local life.

Maren and Phout in Vientiane early this month - dressed for an event!

Maren and Phout in Vientiane early this month – dressed for an event!

What a kick!  Phout’s daughter, 4 months pregnant with her first child, and her husband, Nan, kept us company the whole time.  Nan, who works for the Laos PDR Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, took a day off from work and he and his wife spent two additional evenings off from their lives to translate for Phout and me.  We spent a day having lunch that Phout cooked – lovely plain boiled chicken, greens, sticky rice, and jhao – spicy dip – with all four of us at Nan and Phout’s daughter’s house.  Then several hours of looking at some new textiles from Phout – how could I resist!  I even bought a very fancy skirt from Phout of her recent design – ask to see it at our events!  I got a few more healing cloths and love tokens from her also that I couldn’t resist…

Phout’s mom also accompanied her to Vientiane for some dental work.  Her mom wanted to sell me her blanket that she wove at age 12 (she’s maybe 70 now?) in silk with natural dyes and handspun cotton border and backing.  Having a treasure such as this, that survived the Vietnam war and the bombing of Laos for 9 years, is the curse of the business side of Above the Fray.  No – I could never sell it.  Such rarities really belong in museums.  I even have a photo of Phout’s mom, also named Mai, wearing the blanket to complete the textile’s documentation.

Phout's mom, Mai, wearing the cloth she wove over 50 years ago.

Phout’s mom, Mai, wearing the cloth she wove over 50 years ago.

 

Phout’s daughter’s husband’s father’s neighbor’s daughter was getting married on one of the days I was with Phout.  They asked if I could attend, and the answer, of course was “Yes!”  I was the only “falang” (foreigner) invited to the 300+ person wedding at a fancy hotel – sit-down dinner with Johnny Walker Black and soda served to all with a live band and traditional Laos dancing – I was dragged onto the dance floor by Phout’s son-in-law, his dad, and by Phout herself – what fun!

The next night we went to the main temple in Vientiane where an annual ceremony was centered for two days later – the one where people make boats out of banana leaves and float them down the river with a candle lit in them to send wishes to the ancestor world – as depicted by the “wax naga boats” on many Laos textiles.  Boy was it a wild party!  In addition to monks accepting donations in return for the tying on of “basi strings” for good health and good fortune (I got two!), there were multiple (six plus stages) full of music and dancers, loud sellers of Chinese clothing, cars, motorcycles, ferris wheels, kids rides, and copious volumes of sustenance, including quail eggs, chestnuts, fried dough, barbequed dried squid, and other delicacies.  Phout and I held hands the whole time.  So sweet!  I am honored to be considered a good friend of such a talented designer, dyer, and weaver.

Dancers from the Lawae culture dance at the celebration in Vientiane.

Dancers from the Lawae culture dance at the celebration in Vientiane.

Mr. “Fern Frond Animals” Siovan

Mr. “Fern Frond Animals” Siovan 

Mr Siovan grew up in a small village a few hours outside of Houaphon Province’s main city, Xam Neua, in N.E. Laos.  As a child (and during the horrific Vietnam War) he learned the art of basket weaving from his grandfather.  Traditionally, while women weave the textiles, men shape the bamboo, rattan, and other baskets used in villages for carrying, holding, protecting, and storing their textiles, food, and firewood.

Mr. Siovan at his home.

Mr. Siovan at his home.

After the war, Mr. Siovan was able to get a government job, and he worked for 30 years for the Department of Agriculture in Houaphan Province.  While a civil servant, Mr. Siovan earned a little extra cash selling baskets, enjoying the patient, methodical work, and soon he was being asked to teach the art of basket-weaving for the next generation.  His reputation for both quality of weaving and teaching skills grew quickly, and he is now working full-time as a weaver and teacher. Mr. Siovan has earned the title of a Master-Weaver from the Lao government, and he has become involved in major organizations that are both promoting bamboo production as well as traditional skills that are disappearing across much of the developing world.

Mr. Siovan captured our attention not only with his bamboo and rattan baskets (which are wonderful), but rather with a grandfatherly side-hobby of weaving fern-frond animals.   We were enamored of the cleverness, the precision, and the individual personalities that he captures in his fern creations.

Mr. Siovan shows us two of his fern creations.

Mr. Siovan shows us two of his fern creations.

On our last visit to Xam Neua, we again stopped by his house to see what he had available to purchase.  Unfortunately for us, the only fern frond animal he had was his first, a water buffalo with a rope through its nose, and an unfortunately mouse-chewed hind foot.  It was so charming, though, that we had to add it to our personal collection.  We really wanted to bring some of his creations home, and, to his delight, we ordered a few “for our American friends”.  He was so thrilled at the idea of his animals coming to America that he said he would do an extra good job on them so they would represent him well.  He said it would take him two months to collect the fern fronds, prepare them for weaving, and weave the animals.  We finalized the business, and the results are now available for all to see and purchase!

Mr. Siovan holds one of his own baskets.

Mr. Siovan holds one of his own baskets.

Sho, Our Black Hmong Guide and Friend, Gets Married!

Sho, Our Black Hmong Guide and Friend, Gets Married!

A beaming Antoine and glowing Sho enter their “white dress wedding.”

A beaming Antoine and glowing Sho enter their “white dress wedding.”

Those of you who have been following our newsletters for a few years know of our friend Sho, a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious Black Hmong woman with an acute business sense who was our first guide in the Sapa, Vietnam region, and who has continued being a special friend (see Newsletter #6 for an introduction).  This summer, the timing worked out just right for Ari, Zall and Maren to attend her two weddings in Vietnam to her French husband, Antoine, who works as a hotel manager in Sapa; the first wedding was a Black Hmong event held at her parent’s house, and the second, a “white-dress” wedding at a nearby eco-lodge.

Antoine (in his  Black Hmong clothing) and his dad admire beautiful baby Alice.

Antoine (in his Black Hmong clothing) and his dad admire beautiful baby Alice.

I need to preface with the comment that all of us have been “in love” with Sho since we first met her – she holds a special place in all of our “boy’s” hearts.  I have called her “my daughter”, and have jokingly bemoaned the fact that Ari is 5 years younger and not old enough to marry her.  As such, when the three of use first saw Sho and her daughter (born 2 months before the wedding!), huge hugs went all around.  Just then, a man came out from a nearby coffee shop, and Sho introduced us – he was Antoine’s father.  I put my arm around Sho and told him she is my daughter.  He put his arm around her and said, beaming with pride, “No, Sho is MY daughter!”  A better introduction could not be had.  Having a father-in-law so pleased and happy with her relieved any of our anxieties about her acceptance into her new family.

Sho in a rare contemplative moment during her Hmong wedding.

Sho in a rare contemplative moment during her Hmong wedding.

In reality, Sho and Antoine were already married.  They had had the formal paperwork wedding in early April, before their daughter Alice was born.  We were invited to attend the fun Vietnam weddings; a fourth wedding was later held in France with all of Antoine’s extended family and European friends.

Food and drink abound at a Hmong wedding party!

Food and drink abound at a Hmong wedding party!

The Hmong wedding held at Sho’s parent’s house with a group of about 100, included Sho’s closest friends and family, Antoine’s closest local friends, and Antoine’s dad and brother who had flown in for the event.  Many of the Hmong, as well as Antoine, were dressed in traditional Black Hmong clothing including a handspun, indigo-dyed cotton jacket – the women’s jackets had silk-embroidered sleeves – and a handwoven, indigo-dyed hemp vest with a silk-embroidered collar.  The traditional Hmong wedding includes eating vast quantities of delicious local food, drinking non-stop, and hoisting uncounted toasts to the family of the bride and to the bride and groom.  Had Antoine been a traditional local Hmong man, he would have knelt in front of the bride’s father; this step did not happen as Antoine had been accepted as family for some time.

Sho and Ti - our guiding sisters and friends!

Sho and Ti – our guiding sisters and friends!

It was hot, hot, hot.  Even high-elevation Sapa is hot in June.  Everyone who could shed their hot local clothing, but Sho said she couldn’t, as it was required of the bride.  Throughout the meal and party, Sho nursed Alice, and handed her off to friends and family to hold.  Even I got to hold her for a few minutes!  As we would expect, Sho conducted the whole event – center of it all, in charge, and having a ball!  Everyone toddled off in a happy state, including the three of us, who had to hire motorcycles to get us back to our hotel – the boys loved it!

Sho’s parent’s house, site of the Hmong wedding, surrounded to the porch edge with rice fields.

Sho’s parent’s house, site of the Hmong wedding, surrounded to the porch edge with rice fields.

The next day was the “white-dress wedding” – more of a reception – at an upscale eco-lodge an hour drive from Sapa that offered a stunning hilltop setting overlooking a lush, terraced valley full of sun and flowers.  Sho was resplendent in her western wedding dress, with constant photos opportunities.  She would yell “Zall – hey Zall – take a picture!” and he would go running to take more photos – over 1,000 that day alone!  There were many more people at this event, about 300 total, including Hmong and Westerners, and a fabulous barbeque meal was shared.

The eco-lodge - setting for the “white dress wedding”.

The eco-lodge – setting for the “white dress wedding”.

Even though the Hmong and westerners knew each other, it was clear, watching their faces, that the Hmong were not used to the western ways of marriage, watching the celebrations from a slight distance and with questioning looks, not knowing quite what to expect next.  Most of the Hmong wore their traditional clothes, except for the young lady friends of Sho’s who wore shimmery outfits in silk, cut to western styles.  Sho danced with Antoine, her father-in-law, and Ari – the only ones so privileged!  We knew many of the local people, having met them in the market or because of our “Above the Fray” interests; of course, we know many of Sho’s friends and family from our years of visiting.

Posing under the flower-studded entry arch with silk-clad friends surrounding and “village Hmong” hanging back on the hill.

Posing under the flower-studded entry arch with silk-clad friends surrounding and “village Hmong” hanging back on the hill.

One of the young Hmong men, dressed in western garb, talked with me a bit, calling me “ma”.  I asked him why everyone had been calling me “ma” (yes, it means mom, just like it looks), and he said that it was what Sho always calls me – her second mom.  Boy did that make me feel special!   It is true, I was the only western woman present at either wedding (her mother- and sister-in-law were at home preparing the wedding in France).  All of the western men living in Sapa had Hmong girlfriends or wives, and there are no western women, it appears, who have made Sapa their homes.

Ari, Sho, Maren, and Zall.

Ari, Sho, Maren, and Zall.

Ari had to leave this wedding early to travel, for the first time alone, on to Vientiane, Laos, to start his internship with MAG (see his article in this newsletter).  Zall and I stayed on and Ti, Sho’s sister, became our guide for a 5-day exploration of some new parts of NW Vietnam, including Son La Province.  Ti’s husband Trang, the maker of the beautiful traditional Hmong jewelry we sell, came with us – his first time ever riding in a car!  What a treat to be able to take him with us and share our trip!  Sho, despite being on a honeymoon of sorts, called Ti daily to make sure everything was well – she obviously didn’t like the idea of relinquishing her shopping and guiding relationship with us!  Needless to say, Ti was fabulous, and we discovered an array of new treasures we will share at our fall events (along with some new earring styles from Trang).

Sho and Antoine with an array of Hmong friends and family.

Sho and Antoine with an array of Hmong friends and family.

Sho, Our Black Hmong Guide and Friend, Gets Married!

Sho, Our Black Hmong Guide and Friend, Gets Married!

A beaming Antoine and glowing Sho enter their “white dress wedding.”

A beaming Antoine and glowing Sho enter their “white dress wedding.”

Those of you who have been following our newsletters for a few years know of our friend Sho, a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious Black Hmong woman with an acute business sense who was our first guide in the Sapa, Vietnam region, and who has continued being a special friend (see Newsletter #6 for an introduction).  This summer, the timing worked out just right for Ari, Zall and Maren to attend her two weddings in Vietnam to her French husband, Antoine, who works as a hotel manager in Sapa; the first wedding was a Black Hmong event held at her parent’s house, and the second, a “white-dress” wedding at a nearby eco-lodge.

Ari, Sho, Maren and Zall get a quick moment together for a pose.

Ari, Sho, Maren and Zall get a quick moment together for a pose.

I need to preface with the comment that all of us have been “in love” with Sho since we first met her – she holds a special place in all of our “boy’s” hearts.  I have called her “my daughter”, and have jokingly bemoaned the fact that Ari is 5 years younger and not old enough to marry her.  As such, when the three of use first saw Sho and her daughter (born 2 months before the wedding!), huge hugs went all around.  Just then, a man came out from a nearby coffee shop, and Sho introduced us – he was Antoine’s father.  I put my arm around Sho and told him she is my daughter.  He put his arm around her and said, beaming with pride, “No, Sho is MY daughter!”  A better introduction could not be had.  Having a father-in-law so pleased and happy with her relieved any of our anxieties about her acceptance into her new family.

Sho (left) and her sister, Thi.  Both are excellent guides and translators.

Sho (left) and her sister, Thi. Both are excellent guides and translators.

In reality, Sho and Antoine were already married.  They had had the formal paperwork wedding in early April, before their daughter Alice was born.  We were invited to attend the fun Vietnam weddings; a fourth wedding was later held in France with all of Antoine’s extended family and European friends.

The Hmong wedding held at Sho’s parent’s house with a group of about 100, included Sho’s closest friends and family, Antoine’s closest local friends, and Antoine’s dad and brother who had flown in for the event.  Many of the Hmong, as well as Antoine, were dressed in traditional Black Hmong clothing including a handspun, indigo-dyed cotton jacket – the women’s jackets had silk-embroidered sleeves – and a handwoven, indigo-dyed hemp vest with a silk-embroidered collar.  The traditional Hmong wedding includes eating vast quantities of delicious local food, drinking non-stop, and hoisting uncounted toasts to the family of the bride and to the bride and groom.  Had Antoine been a traditional local Hmong man, he would have knelt in front of the bride’s father; this step did not happen as Antoine had been accepted as family for some time.

Sho and her large, extended Black Hmong family.

Sho and her large, extended Black Hmong family.

It was hot, hot, hot.  Even high-elevation Sapa is hot in June.  Everyone who could shed their hot local clothing, but Sho said she couldn’t, as it was required of the bride.  Throughout the meal and party, Sho nursed Alice, and handed her off to friends and family to hold.  Even I got to hold her for a few minutes!  As we would expect, Sho conducted the whole event – center of it all, in charge, and having a ball!  Everyone toddled off in a happy state, including the three of us, who had to hire motorcycles to get us back to our hotel – the boys loved it!

The next day was the “white-dress wedding” – more of a reception – at an upscale eco-lodge an hour drive from Sapa that offered a stunning hilltop setting overlooking a lush, terraced valley full of sun and flowers.  Sho was resplendent in her western wedding dress, with constant photos opportunities.  She would yell “Zall – hey Zall – take a picture!” and he would go running to take more photos – over 1,000 that day alone!  There were many more people at this event, about 300 total, including Hmong and Westerners, and a fabulous barbeque meal was shared.

DSC_2371Even though the Hmong and westerners knew each other, it was clear, watching their faces, that the Hmong were not used to the western ways of marriage, watching the celebrations from a slight distance and with questioning looks, not knowing quite what to expect next.  Most of the Hmong wore their traditional clothes, except for the young lady friends of Sho’s who wore shimmery outfits in silk, cut to western styles.  Sho danced with Antoine, her father-in-law, and Ari – the only ones so privileged!  We knew many of the local people, having met them in the market or because of our “Above the Fray” interests; of course, we know many of Sho’s friends and family from our years of visiting.

A beautiful setting for a formal wedding, high in the north Vietnamese hills. The French developed the area as an escape from the lowland's heat.

A beautiful setting for a formal wedding, high in the north Vietnamese hills. The French developed the area as an escape from the lowland’s heat.

One of the young Hmong men, dressed in western garb, talked with me a bit, calling me “ma”.  I asked him why everyone had been calling me “ma” (yes, it means mom, just like it looks), and he said that it was what Sho always calls me – her second mom.  Boy did that make me feel special!   It is true, I was the only western woman present at either wedding (her mother- and sister-in-law were at home preparing the wedding in France).  All of the western men living in Sapa had Hmong girlfriends or wives, and there are no western women, it appears, who have made Sapa their homes.

Ari had to leave this wedding early to travel, for the first time alone, on to Vientiane, Laos, to start his internship with MAG (see his article in this newsletter).  Zall and I stayed on and Ti, Sho’s sister, became our guide for a 5-day exploration of some new parts of NW Vietnam, including Son La Province.  Ti’s husband Trang, the maker of the beautiful traditional Hmong jewelry we sell, came with us – his first time ever riding in a car!  What a treat to be able to take him with us and share our trip!  Sho, despite being on a honeymoon of sorts, called Ti daily to make sure everything was well – she obviously didn’t like the idea of relinquishing her shopping and guiding relationship with us!  Needless to say, Ti was fabulous, and we discovered an array of new treasures we will share at our fall events (along with some new earring styles from Trang).

Meet Chola & Her Family

Meet Chola & Her Family

It always happens.  Just when we have maxed our budget for a village, someone else shows up with a beautiful textile.

Chola modeling the butterfly scarves woven by her daughter that we bought the first time we met her.

Chola modeling the butterfly scarves woven by her daughter that we bought the first time we met her.

We first met the woman we have nicknamed “the ghop lady” – the frog lady – on our second trip to her town in  Houaphon Province in NE Laos.  We had packed our gear and purchases, and were about to leave town to head to the border with Vietnam, hoping to cross and find a ride to Hanoi that same day if possible.  We were sitting on the bench outside our guest house, putting on our shoes, when a woman showed up with some beautiful scarves.  With our very last few kip (Laos money) we purchased four scarves from her; two with butterflies, and two with a very traditional flower pattern and stylized frogs, or “ghop” in the Lao language; thus her nickname.

We came back to her town on our next trip, having sold three of her four textiles, and looking for more.  This time, we showed photos of her we’d taken the previous visit (and you thought this was only for our customers!) to people in the market, asking if she had a stall in the market or a home nearby.  No one is a stranger in these small towns, and soon we were knocking on her door and calling “sabaidee”.  Unfortunately, she was out of town, in the capital of Vientiane, selling her textiles to the market vendors – we had missed her!

Chola’s son modeling the rat design door curtain he wove.

Chola’s son modeling the rat design door curtain he wove.

On the next trip 6 months later, she was home and recognized us.  She cheerfully invited us into her home where we were seated on handwoven floor-pillows, brought glasses of water, and a plate of local jicama and oranges to munch on while viewing textiles.  While she went upstairs to get bags of textiles (literally – large plastic garbage can liners), her 8-year-old son sat shyly in the corner watching us.  Chola put the fans on “high” to keep the sweating to a minimum (hah!), and we started unfolding her offerings:  beautiful shawls, narrow scarves, and even some pieces she had made as part of her wedding linens (just to show off as these were not for sale!).  One of her older pieces was a delicately woven mosquito net made of a silk patterned band as long as a bed is around from which handspun, handwoven, indigo-dyed cotton was suspended both across the top and down the sides to reach to the floor – this provides not only bug protection, but also privacy given that all family members traditionally sleep in one room.  She also showed us a beautiful door curtain, hung in place of an inside house door, that was silk on cotton.  She is keeping these pieces for herself, and maybe for her daughter to inherit.  To see such treasured pieces is a treat!

Chola and her daughter taking the butterfly scarves off of the loom for us.

Chola and her daughter taking the butterfly scarves off of the loom for us.

One of the pieces she brought out of the bag was a door curtain with a repeated  rat pattern.  I fell in love with it and asked if she made it.  She motioned to her son to come over, and said he had woven it when he was 7 years old.  He was now embarrased to have woven it because, at the ripe old age of 8, he now thought of weaving as something women did, not boys.  Despite his embarrasment, we took a photo of him displaying the piece.  It is now one of my treasures!  While we have found similar rat door curtains, this is the only one woven by him.

The following season when we visited, we found Chola and her daughter out on the cement patio in front of their home; her 14-year old daughter was weaving on one of the two looms set up under a metal roof.  And the daughter was weaving those exact butterfly scarves!  We indicated that we would like to buy some, and they meticulously unwrapped the already woven scarves and cut them off of the loom, the daughter beaming shyly, but proudly, the whole time.  Zall (also 14!) took photos of the butterfly scarves coming off of the loom.  The daughter also wove narrow scarves with love birds on them – we couldn’t resist those either!

Chola modeling her “story cloth” woven of naturally dyed local silk.

Chola modeling her “story cloth” woven of naturally dyed local silk.

The trip when Grandma came with us, we didn’t manage to visit until night was falling.  Unfortunately, it was a night without electricity (not that uncommon in this region), and we made our selections by candlelight and flashlight!  We often end up choosing textiles by the light of (I swear!) a 15 watt light bulb, but trying to make selections with a single candle’s glow was a new one even for us.  Knowing the quality of the weaver’s goods makes a big difference under these circumstances.  We did go back the next morning to pick up the scarves, as several of them needed to have the fringes braided.  We also selected a couple more of her cheerful silks – the ones that haunted us overnight – all the while asking about the patterns and techniques.  We have to acknowledge none of this conversation on this visit would have been possible without our good friend Mai, who grew up in Chola’s village but left after high school with a rare opportunity to attend college, learn English, and develop a professional career.

We usually have a translator with us on our visits to this village, but not always.  Half of our conversations with Chola are a combination of sign language, Maren’s very limited Lao skills, a calculator, and constant laughter at our sometimes fruitless efforts to clearly communicate.  The blend of translated and non-translated communication is part of what makes these relationships so fun!

Chola and her daughter are now regular artists represented by Above The Fray.  We always visit her when we go to that village, and hope that she is there.  We have tried to call her in advance, through a friend and translator, but her phone never seems to work.  It is just the luck of the draw if she is there and has textiles for us.  Part of the adventure!