The Lao Weavers Visit America

The Lao Weavers Visit America

Phout, Maren, Malaithong and Souksakone enjoy a late evening barbecue on our porch in Eugene, OR.

 

It was a decade old dream come true. Rather than Maren and I visiting our wonderful Lao weaving friends in their village in Laos, we finally “got even” by having them visit us on their first ever trip to America; for weavers Souk and Phout, it was their first time outside of SE Asia. They were able to bring childhood friend Malaithong with them for her translation services and to help facilitate the business and adventure opportunity.

These are three precious friends of ours who we met a decade ago in Xam Tai, Laos when we first started Above the Fray, and their work has been central to the finest quality silks that we offer our customers.

Souksokone, Malaithong, photographer Joe Coca, Maren and Phout at the Santa Fe Folk-Art Market.

The first week was spent in Santa Fe, where they were welcomed as special guests of the exquisite and selective Santa Fe Folk Art Festival and Market. For two days the jet-lagged weavers attended workshops that introduced them to American business and marketing, and then they sold some phenomenal textiles in the marketplace. Maren and I flew down to assist with the sales and cheer them on. The crowd was dense and receptive, and they did well with sales. Many attendees complemented those Lao weavers, dyers and designers as the highlight of the 150 or more represented artists.

Phout and Souksakone’s first visit to a Whole Foods Supermarket. So many things!

They then spent a week with us here in Eugene – and the weather was perfect. What a blast seeing our world through another’s eyes. A few highlights:

  • Watching them take photos in the produce section of Whole Foods – what a selection of greens! The wine department was overwhelming, and just how many kinds of cheese are there?
  • Getting to throw a first snowball ever, while enjoying the views at Crater Lake.
  • Watching forests glide by the car window for hours. They agree that our life-style here is very tomasat – that is, based on the goodness of being natural. And the roads are so smooth and fast!

    Enjoying snow for the first time at the rim of Crater Lake.

  • Souksakone asking several times where the rice is grown. (“Why so much grass?”).
  • Setting up a full-size Lao loom in our studio, and celebrating its completion with a quick Lao Basi ceremony and a bottle of champagne.

    Setting up the new loom.

  • Finding large, juicy deer walking unabashedly around our Crest Drive neighborhood. Nobody is eating them??
  • Eating more meat in a week than they eat in a season – the T-bone with a baked potato was well-received. They agreed they all liked American food – as long as its fresh and home-cooked!

    Malaithong, Souksakne Josh and Phout enjoying the natural outdoors.

  • Roasting the hottest of jalapenos on our bbq grill to gain a bit of “flavor” for the rice.
  • Hearing them being impressed with how clean things are – so little litter! (And that is a boastful ethic of ours in this corner of the world!)
  • Phout getting her first elevator ride – to the 73rd floor of Seattle’s Columbia Center! Not sure she’ll do that again…

    Phout at the ground level of the Columbia Center. Better place to be!

We laughed so much, and we are so grateful for Malaithong’s translation efforts.

On one evening late in the week, as we shared a bottle of wine, Maren mentioned how we felt like we truly had family in Lao.  How was it possible for people so far apart to find such a heart-bound friendship?

Malaithong explained that the Lao have a specific word – Seo – to refer to a friend with who you share a deeper connection. And that yes, we were all seo, bonded by our trust and affection.

Malaithong continued.  “Here is what I think happened. In the beginning we were of the same family, and then, when all the people were being put onto the Earth, at that moment there was a ver-ry big storm, and a great wind,” and here Malaithong waved her hands in front of her face and made a “whoo-oo-oosh” sound. “Myself, and Souk and Phout blew about and landed in Laos, and you and Josh blew about and landed in America. But we are still of the same family, and now we have found each other.” We laughed and Malaithong shrugged: “That must be what happened.”

Sharing another wonderful meal – hamburgers! Joining us is our son, Ari.

To read more stories and learn about the silk craftwork of these women (and we dedicate a chapter each to both Souk and Phout) and many others, we lure to our new publication: Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos: Textiles, Tradition, and Well-Being (Thrums Book, 2017) by Joshua Hirschstein and Maren Beck, with photos by Joe Coca.  You may order an autographed copy at www.hilltribeart.com, or order through Amazon or your favorite bookstore.

They’ve arrived!

 

The Engineer of Xam Tai

The cover of our upcoming publication, available October 1.

[This story was written to be in our up-coming publication, Silk Weavers of Hill Tribe Laos (Thrums Books, available October 1, 2017) in a section on the future of the independent silk weavers of Xam Tai in Laos’s Houaphan Province. Although the book’s focus and length led to its deletion, but it is still a tale worth telling – a tale emblematic of the rapid modernization occurring in this long-isolated region.]

We were in the NE corner of Laos, in the town of Xam Tai (well-known for its quality naturally-dyed silks), enjoying a wedding reception celebrating the union of the town’s pharmacist’s daughter to a handsome young gentleman. As in much of Lao, the pharmacist is the first medical care option, and as regular visitors to Xam Tai, both Maren and  I had asked her advice several times for treating our minor ailments. Hence the invitation.

Perhaps 250 people – a good portion of the town – were present at the outdoor event, held under temporary white tents in a large field close to the new marketplace. The dinner of water buffalo meat and stomach, fresh bamboo shoots, three types of sausage, boiled greens and sticky rice had long been eaten, and the master of ceremonies was alternating between introducing important guests and singing modern pop songs and traditional melodies on an over-amplified electric keyboard.

The bride and groom share a toast with two seated guests.

An abundance of ushers, friends of the young bride and groom, strolled past the tables, making sure that no one lacked food or beverage. The Beer Lao and Pepsi flowed; voices and laughs were loud. The evening air felt cool; the atmosphere was light and joyous.

Maren had been invited to dance and I could see her, a head taller than almost everyone, as she promenaded with her partner in a group circle, waving her hands first to the left, and then the right like a slow-motion hula, only with the women wearing elegant silk sinh (skirts) instead of grass skirts.

Malaithong, our translator (and good friend for nearly 10 years), nudged me on the shoulder; she shouted to be heard over the din.

Three of our best friends in Laos: Phout, Souk, and Malaithong. All three grew up in Xam Tai as friends. Malaithong learned English and is our translator as well. They are enjoying a wedding party in this photo.

“This man coming over. Ve-ery big man. Big boss…” She paused and made sure she had my full attention. “He is a good man. Everybody likes him, and he works ve-ery, ve-ery hard.” The “ve-ery ve-ery” came out slowly and in a higher tone.

The gentleman she nodded toward sat at the next table and held his empty glass to the side, tilted towards us so that his current guest could not again refill it.

Malaithong straightened her posture. “He has many good ideas for what to do for tourism and economy in Xam Tai.” She again paused, and then she leaned close and whispered: “He is like the boss’s boss’s boss,“ and she nodded slowly.

The gentleman sat on the edge of the folding chair, swaying a bit back and forth, eyes squinting and with a wide smile of perfect teeth. His face glowed with perspiration. His shirt was untucked. But in all fairness, it was near the end of a wedding celebration.

The rural Xam Tai valley looks much the same as in centuries past. Wait – are those electric lines?!

Suddenly he turned and held out his hand. “Sabaidee-ee,” (Good health), he said, and he pulled himself up from his chair and plopped himself onto another next to me. His squint and smile maintained the open easy lilt of person who had been celebrating for many hours; however, his voice was sure and direct. We pumped our hands up and down two or three times; then he set his glass on the table and brought his other hand to rest on top of our shake. His moist, warm hands held onto mine gently but firmly.

“Sabaidee,” I returned with a smile and nod.

Mailathong didn’t wait a moment. “Mr. Josh, this is Mr _____, district vice governor of Xam Tai.” She then said a few words in Lao, “Josh” being one of them. He continued to hold my hand as Malaithong spoke, his squint, smile and glow looking directly into my eyes.

“I am…uh… so hap-py to…uh… to meet you, Mr. Josh,” he said in deliberate, careful English. He had to nearly yell to be heard over the pounding keyboards and other nearby conversations. His English was thick and slow-paced, but, with a bit of focus, quite clear. Malaithong reached for an open bottle of Beer Lao and filled our short glasses.

Modern guesthouses are a recent development in Xam Tai.

He held up his beer with a warm smile, and we each drained our share. His hand returned to the top of our handshake. He then said some more words to me, which I could not decipher in the din, but I continued to shake his pumping hands and nod. If nothing else, I thought, we can share squinty eyes, crooked smiles, and radiant complexions.

“I … uh … I show you,” he said brightly, as if having a sudden epiphany. Removing his moist right hand from our shake he reached into his shirt pocket for his iPhone. “I am engineer,” he said as he tried to open an application with the same hand that held the phone.

“Very good,” I replied. “An engineer.” Part of me wished to be rescued from the conversation. Trying to follow an engineering-themed thread led by a thick-accented celebrator in the cacophony of a Lao wedding was, perhaps, more culturally immersed than I particularly wished to be at that moment.

Weaving provides a solid income for the majority of families in the region.

The vice governor sat up squarely, let go of my hand and moved his fingers quickly on the phone. “I want … uh … to show you…” and his words dropped off as he poked at his phone. His eyes opened wider and his sway stopped. “I show you … uh … idea. My idea.” I laughed for no reason, and glanced at Malaithong. She was nodding with her eyebrows raised, urging that I share my full attention.

“Here,” he said finally. “This is … uh … what I think … for Xam Tai.” On the iPhone’s screen spun a shape in slow motion that looked like the blueprint of a house. The spinning house grew larger and all I could think of was Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz as it spun downward and landed on the Wicked Witch. He continued with more words, but I couldn’t make them out in the noise.

“For Xam Tai…” he said emphatically, pointing at the screen. “I think … uh … like engineer … I think to help Xam Tai to make … uh … for park for Xam Tai.” The iPhone’s vision stopped spinning, and then the short demonstration on the iPhone started to replay itself.

Two weavers display their recently woven sinh (skirts).

I looked to Malaithong, who had just refilled the governor’s and my glass. She smiled and said loudly: “Mr. ____ is a ve-rry smart man. He wants a new park in Xam Tai, where the old market used to be. You know, across from the new bank.” I nodded. Our family had loved that old, low-ceilinged, dilapidated market, but its recent replacement certainly was cleaner, safer, and had room for expansion.

The vice governor watching me intently while Malaithong continued: “He has plans to build a central park for Xam Tai – a nice place for tourists and business. Like in the big city – only in Xam Tai it would be smaller, of course.”

I looked again at the iPhone, and I suddenly understood the graphic. Mr. ____ had programmed a phone app to show a 3-dimensional layout of a park-plan he had developed. The graphic on the phone was a spinning view of the imagined center park, as if the viewer were a slow-moving bird coming toward it in a narrowing circle. Yes – there was the open field, and a pavilion-like building. The center-point of the park layout spun in closer and the viewer finally landed in the park next to the handsome building – only to be jolted back to the beginning of the animated loop.

Malaithong with an armload of freshly processed silk. The silk worms are raised locally.

Malaithong explained that the vice governor wanted to make Xam Tai an important town and increase tourism and help promote the local silk weavers. “The center building could have a tourist office,” Malaithong cheered. “For explaining the weaving,”

I looked up at the vice governor. He sat steadily, straight-faced, almost solemn now. I reached out with my left hand and gently clenched his right shoulder; with my right hand, I presented a confident thumbs-up. “What an excellent idea,” I said, and the vice governor burst into a wide smile. I nodded largely, up and down, assuming that a bigger “yes” was a better “yes.”   He started a gentle nod in the rhythm of my nod.

Maren just then returned from the dance floor, and, after introductions, we showed Maren the animation. Maren watched intently for a moment, and then, after a brief explanation, her face lit up. “That would be wonderful!”

She then insisted that the vice governor, now sober as a judge, show and explain to her the details of his presentation.

Malaithong sat and watched, a small smile on her face. As they say, all politics is local.

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.

Cotton Spinning in a Lanten Village, NW Laos

The Kim Mun Lanten people plant their cotton in the forests and alongside their rice paddies. Our week-long visit in summer, unfortunately, did not coincide with the harvest and ginning season (December and January), but cotton spinning and textile dyeing and weaving are year-round activities in some local villages, and we were eager to explore what we could of the local textile traditions. After all, seeking out people making traditional, village-use items nearly always leads to an adventure.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

Josh and Maren pose with a Lanten mother and daughter a NW Laos.

The day after our Akha spinning lesson, Tui guided us to a village of the Kim Mun Lanten ethnic group, a people renowned for their cotton spinning and weaving. The locals of the village were very surprised to see Western visitors, and perhaps thirty or forty women and children crowded closely (the men were working in the rice fields). It took a few minutes to get used to the closeness of the people and the seeming infringement on what we feel is our “personal space.” However, the shared smiles and nods and Tui’s cheerful demeanor and explanation quickly melted any awkwardness.

The women of the Lanten village wore loose-fitting handspun cotton tunics that wrapped and tied across the chest and loose-legged knee-length pants, all dyed to a rich, deep blue with locally harvested indigo. The outfits were modest and, from a distance, unadorned. Upon closer inspection, however, each jacket had a thin strip of color at the collar, cuff, or edging. From a frog closure on her neck, each adult woman wore white or pink streamers of silk (or acrylic), which they constantly threw over their shoulders when doing handwork, and a shorter tassel of silk on each end of a thin woven-cotton waist-belt. Several wore handmade earrings and hair clips of silver or “white bronze,” an inexpensive alloy made of copper, tin and zinc.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

A Lanten woman sews the edging onto her indigo-dyed handspun cotton outfit.

When Tui explained that we were searching for local textile traditions, one forward woman grabbed Maren tightly around her arm and marched the whole parade of us through the village to her home. She opened up a fast conversation with Maren as if Maren could understand every word. Tui gave up trying to interrupt with a translation. However, Maren, undaunted, smiled and eventually responded with equal enthusiasm, albeit in English, about our desire to see their art. Neither understood the other’s vocabulary, but they shared a sense of curiosity and opportunity. They both laughed and leaned on each other as they walked up the dirt slope.

Her village-built spinning wheel was in the breezeway of her modest wood home. Maren gestured for the woman to sit on the low stool and demonstrate her technique. The woman sat down and picked out a 6-inch (15 cm) tube of clean unspun cotton. In a previous process, Tui translated, the ginned, fluffed cotton had been gently rolled onto bamboo sticks, and then the smooth stick had been extracted to leave these snakelike cocoons tubes of cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

A Lanten woman spins cotton.

Holding the soft cotton in her left hand, the woman cranked the wooden spinning wheel deftly with her right. The cotton fiber was hooked onto the end of a horizontal spindle, and as the bobbin spun, she smoothly pulled back her left hand, letting the spindle efficiently twist the fiber. When the twisting yarn reached an arm’s length, she leaned forward and the fiber dropped from the hook; the spindle then hungrily zipped up the length of yarn onto the shaft. The smooth-motioned dance of creating a fine yarn was repeated, repeated, and repeated again, her bobbin growing with a small pulse following each inward reach.DSC03551

Maren smiled and nodded emphatically as the woman demonstrated her efficient motions with the handbuilt device (which could also function as a skein winder, hence the wide Ferris wheel shape). The spinner looked at Maren and then pointed to a plastic bag full of cotton rolls. Maren laughed and stretched out her arms to indicate the amount of cotton and length of time the present project would require. The woman smiled broadly, then squared her shoulders and turned back to again demonstrate the process.

Soon, Maren took a turn with the spinning, and then Tui wanted to try—Hah! A man spinning cotton! Tui posed as a pompous spinner and flippantly spun the wheel. The women, the kids, and Maren and I laughed so hard we nearly fell over.

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Hah! A man spinning cotton!!

Five minutes later we were at a neighbor’s home, around in the back under a tin roof. Here sat a full floor loom, complete with a handmade bamboo comb in a teak frame, a substantial timeworn shuttle, and what seemed like an acre of half-meter-wide handspun cotton cloth rolled onto the loom’s front bar. A woman sat at the loom and worked the two wooden treadles. Tui translated her explanation of the Lanten weaving technique. She then allowed us to photograph the loom; she herself, like many others, asked not to be photographed.

Two plastic pitchers of water appeared. A nine- or ten-year-old girl, presumably a daughter or niece, filled the single glass and offered it first to Maren, who thanked her and then raised the glass to the surrounding community. “Kop chai lai lai,” Maren said in Lao. “Thank you very much.” She finished the glass quickly and passed it back, and then we each in turn had a moment with the glass and a chance to share a word or nod.

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Hand-spun cotton being handwoven. Look at the patina on that huge shuttle!

Before we left, several women brought to us cotton yardage they wished to sell, some plain white and some deeply dyed in their traditional indigo. As in most of rural Laos, prices were set; these savvy spinners and dyers were not in the least naïve about the quality or value of their time, effort, and product.

As for us—we could not have had a richer day.

 

(This article has been published in Spin-Off Magazine, Summer 2016)

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.

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.

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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.

Maren On Summer’s Assignment: Of Sushi (Twice), Sinh, Batik, a Venture to Muang Et, and Friends (Part 3/3)

The week leading up to July 25, 2014

Very fresh fish, caught when the rice fields are first drained.

Very fresh fish, caught when the rice fields are first drained.

OK – we have attained a new culinary height (or depth) that will make many cringe – sorry in advance for PETA fans.  Yesterday we visited a village celebrating the “fish in the rice fields” day, a day, post rice planting, when the plants are well rooted, when the fields are drained of water and the villagers scavenge the fields for small fish that are left flopping in the mud.  The fish are a central part of the fish day celebration, accompanying many shots of lao-lao (distilled rice “whiskey”), grilled river fish, and many other local delights.  These small fish are kept alive in bowls of water, then, individually, placed into  bowl of spicy vegetables and we’re not quite sure what else, poked around in the spicy mixture (many flop their way out during this ignominy) and then, grasped between chopsticks and with a splop of spicy food, popped into ones mouth alive and flipping for a tasty sushi treat.  Zall declined, but Josh and I each managed a fish, then Josh continued to eat 2 more!  A new height in western ideas of grossness, but, in order to be part of the festival, this is what needed to be done!  Try everything once, is our travel motto.

Josh with a "squiggler." Lots of chili, quick chew, and down. "Easy as pie."

Josh with a “squiggler.” Lots of chili, quick chew, and down. Easy as pie.

Sushi - bottoms up!  A chaser of a shot of strong lao-lao fortified us!

Sushi – bottoms up! A chaser of a shot of strong lao-lao fortified us!

This culinary delight followed our truly delightful time in Houaphon Province.  We also ended up going to the silk-raising village with the District Vice Governor, and eating huge amounts of fish – grilled, in soup, and, delightfully, raw dipped in soy sauce and wasabi!  We had never seen wasabi before in Laos, but, apparently, it is made in Thailand, and is the same brand we use in the states (at least the same color packaging, though ours is usually in English).  That fresh, raw fish was incredible – we saw the fish swimming, then it was sliced and on a plate – incredibly delicious.

Maren leans in to watch; weaving can be mesmerizing!

Maren leans in to watch; weaving can be mesmerizing!

Josh and I wandered around the village a bit, and Josh videotaped several women weaving intricately patterned sinh (skirt fabric) using the usual discontinuous supplemental weft (brocade) method of weaving to create patterns.  We ended up buying one sinh from a woman who raised the silkworms, reeled the silk, made the natural dyes, and then wove the fabric.  Quite amazing.  Josh videoed young girls weaving simpler patterns, women weaving more complex patterns, including a skirt fabric with supplemental warp, and an older lady with goiters weaving a skirt border with thicker pattern strings to accommodate her arthritic fingers – boy did she beat back that reed hard!  Quite the tough lady, and she seemed pleased with the attention too!

Our friend, guide, and translator Kaiphet

Our friend, guide, and translator Kaiphet.

We returned to Xam Neau for a day, shipped our accumulated textiles via bus to our shipper in Vientiane (safe as can be), and then the three of us set off for the far northern part of Houaphan Province to see the sights and to explore the textiles.  We went with our first guide from 2006 , Kaiphet, who’s baby just turned one yesterday (we were Kaiphet’s first-ever clients as well, and we have remained good friends over the years).  We stopped to see an elderly Hmong man who was one of our first contacts on that road 8 years ago, who was a blacksmith.  We brought back photos of him (taken on our 2008 trip), and, amazingly, he was still there!  He is now quite very elderly, but remembered us, and requested that we come back to visit him again.  Really delightful.

An elderly Hmong blacksmith who captured our attention in 2006. This photo is from 2008.

An elderly Hmong blacksmith who captured our attention in 2006. This photo is from 2008.

Zall, the very elderly Hmong blacksmith, and Josh in 2014.  The gentleman is holding a picture of himself with our boys from many years ago.

Zall, the now very elderly Hmong blacksmith, and Josh in 2014. The gentleman is holding a picture of himself with our boys from many years ago.

Later, we stopped at another Hmong village where Kaiphet said they did painting on cloth – turns out he meant batik, but didn’t know the word in English.  We went to a house in the village and had a long and instructive conversation with a woman who does batik on hemp in the traditional Black Hmong way.  She said that only the Black Hmong still use hemp – something we had also noticed in Vietnam – why, we don’t know.  She proceeded to take our her batik tools and show us how the patterns were drawn, the direction in which the wax “pens” were moved, how she used a small piece of bamboo to draw the lines straight and evenly, and was totally delightful and pleased that we were relatively educated on the process.  We bought a used skirt from her, and she gave us a handful of raw hemp ready for splicing and one of her batik tools to use as display items for our Gallery.  I had to argue with her a bit about giving us the tool, but her son said she had another one just like it, and she wanted us to have it.  I did insist on at least making a small extra contribution so the family could have a special dinner that night.

Maren learns traditional batik-technique from this Hmong woman.

Maren asks a lot of questions and learns traditional batik-technique from this Hmong woman.

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Traditional tools for batik art.

The landscape going up to the northern reaches was beautiful, though a Chinese company is doing mining on a wide section of the hills and the Laos government is putting in a dam, so there were lots of scars on portions of the landscape.  Otherwise, we drove through Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Daeng (Red Tai), Red Dzao (Yao), Hmong, and other villages on the way.  We spent the night in Muong Et after dinner in a Karaoke bar – loud and hot, but delicious and spicy!  Drove back again, stopping in different towns, mostly Dzao.  We visited several older Dzao lady’s houses, and bought some choice hand-made clothing and bags.  Zall was having a fabulous time taking photos of the elders’ faces!

An Red Dzao elder models an outfit she recently made. She happily sold it to us.

An Red Dzao elder models an outfit – long-tailed jacket, pants and belt –  she recently made. She happily sold it to us.

Back in Xam Neua, we were invited to Kaiphet’s home for dinner and our first chance to meet his son – a cutie!  The whole family looks healthy, cheerful, and well.  I think the addition of another woman to help around the house (Kaiphet’s wife), and the grandson, have added a great deal of brightness to the whole family.

Our stop to meet the Dzao elder drew quite a crowd.

Our stop to meet the Dzao elder drew quite a crowd.

Today we packed our gear and did our last market wander.  Tomorrow we’re off to Vietnam, and a (hopefully) relaxing time at the beaches of Sam Son near Thanh Hoa – not reputed to be the best beach in Vietnam, but it is both convenient and a draw for Vietnamese, but not Western, tourists.  Then to Hanoi to finish labeling our materials for shipping, then home.

Laos is about over, and our friends are already saying they miss us and want us to come back as soon as possible. And Josh and I are already laying plans for doing just that!

Maren On Summer’s Assignment: Of Food, Silk, And Friends (Part 2/3)

The week leading up to today, July 17, 2014

Maren on the right, Mai (our Houaphon translator, guide, and very dear friend) pon the right, Mai's mother is middle.  Mai's neice and son, Bingo, are in the front.

Maren on the right, Mai (our Houaphon translator, guide, and very dear friend) is on the right, Mai’s mother is middle. Mai’s nephew and son, Bingo (no, not Batman), are in the front.  We do feel like giants there sometimes….

Josh, Zall and I are sitting in our room taking a break and digesting our lunch of steamed bat (yes, again), water buffalo liver (Josh’s favorite….), green zucchini-ish veggie boiled with venison, water buffalo meat stir fried with some green onion, lots of sticky rice, chili sauce, bamboo soup left over from last night’s dinner, and more of the green zucchini-ish veggies boiled (Zall and I really like them).  So much of our social life focuses on food – preparing it, planning it, eating it.  This morning we had another smaller American-pancake breakfast for a smaller crew – pancakes, bacon, and coffee.  Delish!

Two nights ago we had the “Han-falang” – foreigner restaurant – where we made hamburgers, fries, salad, and s’mores for dessert, with appetizers of gin and tonics, brie, stilton, smoked gouda on crackers, and olives (yes – we actually hauled 24 hamburger buns).  As expected, the hamburgers were a hit (with water buffalo ground in the hand-cranked cast iron meat grinder Z and Josh hauled from home – the women have all asked for more of them – they love the grinder!).  We served them with a thin slice of onion, Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard, my pickles (yes, Josh and Z hauled them too), all on hamburger buns from home.  The potatoes we bought here and fried in oil from home – all were eaten!  The salad was cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, and some spicy greens from the market with Italian salad dressing.  The surprising thing was that everyone ate each type of cheese, and, although it was not their favorite food, they did not react with the tastebud horror we thought they would to aged and moldy calf food.  What did surprise us is that only about half of the people liked the G&Ts.  Most switched happily to Beer Lao.  One of the men helped make s’more sticks from a freshly cut large bamboo, split into stick widths, shaved to eliminate splinters, then carved into points.  I couldn’t believe it – no marshmallows burned!

The meat for our American hamburger meal could not have been fresher.

The meat for our American hamburger meal could not have been fresher.

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Hamburgers and fries with the works, including paper plates.

 

Jsh heating American hamburger buns on the "stove."

Jsh heating American hamburger buns on the “stove.”

We’ve been fed some amazingly good meals – fresh catfish from the river, bamboo soup with the bamboo cut that morning from Phout’s garden – a huge shoot from timber bamboo that was incredibly sweet, mild, and delicious.  Chicken, of course, lots of fresh greens, a tiny pea-sized fruit that is so bitter that it fills your entire head and the taste lasts for at least 10 minutes – it’s supposed to be good for health and blood sugar – and many other things we don’t have at home.  So far we’ve sampled no bugs and no extra MSG in our honor, although we did get another round of “poop soup” – water buffalo stomach, intestines, liver, meat, cooked in water and the contents from a 6” section of intestine; at least it was all very fresh, as we had purchased it along the side of the road on the way to our favorite town in Houaphon Province, having noted a fresh butchering under way.  Somehow, the intestine contents don’t strike me as “fresh”, regardless of age….

Souk shows off one of her silk masterpieces from this year. Just when you think you can't get more intricate, precise, or attuned to the art....

Souk shows off one of her silk masterpieces from this year. Just when you think you can’t get more intricate, precise, or attuned to the art….

On a business note, seriously gorgeous textiles in abundance are all around.  We’ve managed to skim the best off of the top.  Some have color combinations that don’t work, hang “banana” (one selvage is too short and it hangs off to one side) or “hammock” ( the selvages are both too tight and the middle sags), or there are too many flaws or “imperfect” weaving – in other words, absolutely exquisite, but there are better.  We pick the best we can find across the spectrum, though favoring the little girl’s weaving whenever possible (age 9 and weaving unbelievable textiles!)  The theme this year seems to be center diamond patterns, though some new and unusual designs have emerged too.

A nine year old holds up the small piece she wove, and we purchased.

A nine year old holds up the small piece she wove, and we purchased.

We spent 7 hours straight at Phout’s house yesterday buying textiles.  All of the women in the village joined us in the house, upstairs above the looms and farming tools.  The house is made of wood with teak floors, support beams, and walls.  The walls are covered with posters from calendars of beautiful Laos models – women – with coy looks, wearing sinh (Laos skirts), and pabiang (shoulder cloths).  About 30 women were in the house, with two fans going, a couple of windows open, and the temperature must have been 95 degrees.  We were sweating gallons, and Phout gave me a huge bath-sized towel to wipe my brow so I didn’t sweat on the textiles.  Whew!  Zall was incredibly patient, sitting, sweating, and waiting for us to need his photography services.  What a great guy!

A very elderly weaver in Houaphon Province. She sold us a piece she had woven in her youth.

A very elderly weaver in Houaphon Province at Phout’s house. She sold us a piece she had woven in her youth.

The elderly woman modeling the mosquito-net border which she wove some 60 years ago.

The elderly woman modeling the mosquito-net border which she wove some 60 years ago.

Tonight we have been invited to the Vice Governor’s house for dinner and games of Petanque (bocci-ball) – most often played as a drinking game, leading to great hilarity.  He is also going to be accompanying us to a neighboring silk-raising village tomorrow, and, it turns out, most of our friends are going too, leading to a caravan of 3 cars descending on the tiny village at once.  I think we’ll double the population with our arrival!  Mai, our friend and translator, is mightily impressed with the amount of time the Vice Governor is spending in our presence – he seems to have learned the amount we drop in the village each year and is investigating more himself.  He has 4 daughters, and is working (in all jest) to get Ari and Zall to marry into his family!

One thing we have learned this trip is that we are an excuse for all of our friends, including the V. Gov., to get together just to chat, relax, and party.  Apparently, they are so busy with their daily lives and work that they don’t often make the time to get together, despite how it appears when we are here.  So, our visits are not just money makers for them, but also their own social occasions plus the opportunity to hang out with foreigners and have an American meal.  Quite the set of events.

A monsoon storm threatens in the late afternoon.

A monsoon storm threatens in the late afternoon.

Souk and Phout have been working with me to discuss creation of a dye chart.  They are going to collect dye-stuff and threads for our next visit, and we’ll spend a couple of days then creating dye charts for each of us to explain the natural dyes used in this region.  Looking forward to it!

Maren On Summer’s Assignment: Of Hemp Looms, Luang Prabang, and Friends (Part 1/3)

The week leading up to today, July 7, 2014:

A woman shows off her baby - and beautifully embroidered baby-carrier made of local hemp and cotton. The textiles coloring and patterns ndicate the woman's ethnicity is of the "Blue kong" people.

A woman shows off her baby – and beautifully embroidered baby-carrier made of local hemp and cotton. The textiles coloring and patterns ndicate the woman’s ethnicity is of the “Blue kong” people.

I am currently sitting at a restaurant in Phonsavan, XIeng Khuang Province, Laos, nursing a wonderfully cold Beer Lao.  In Vietnam and Laos, so far, it has been hotter’n hell – 84.5 degrees at the coolest in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Laos, at night!  High humidity increased the discomfort.  However, nothing beats being here.

Started in Hanoi – three shops and the hotel, the Bia Hoi (“fresh beer”) seller, as well as the used bookstore owner, all greeted me back to town.  Then off via train to Lao Cai Province in the north, where I spent most of my time with Thi, my Black Hmong friend, sister of our first guide, Sho, as well as all of their family, including sisters Sa, Zu, Bam, Dang, mother Tai, and Thi’s husband,Trang, the traditional Hmong jewelry maker who, once again, came through with beautiful earrings and necklaces.  The major coup of the whole Lao Cai trip was obtaining an older style Hmong hemp weaving loom for display in our Gallery.  Thi managed to find one no longer being used, by her uncle’s family, took the loom “guts” to a woman who had sufficient prepared hemp to warp the loom, who then brought it back and assembled it on the loom frame (two legs and two arms, with one piece missing that Thi’s husband Trang replaced by carving a tree branch with his machete to fit the loom frame in time to assemble).  It was assembled in front of Thi’s sister Chai’s husband’s coffee shop with at least 6 Hmong women and several tourists watching.

Thi: Our good friend, translator, guide, Black Hmong arts’ advisor, seeker of textiles, and more.

The younger Hmong women had never woven using this older loom, and were fascinated by the process.  The older women jumped in and helped assemble it, resulting in the woman who warped the loom weaving about 10” of hemp for me.  I got to weave about 6 rows before the rain came dumping down and we had to cover the loom so the hemp was not ruined for weaving from the rain.  Quite funny.  I sat on two beer crates, upside down, with several women “helping” me weave – yeah, I had a hard time coordinating the backstrap tension, the one heddle controlled by one foot, and the shuttle all at the same time, but, I have to admit, 6 hands helping me weave was a bit much!  Great fun.  Got it disassembled and down to the train back to Hanoi where I had to purchase another bunk on the night train to get the loom frame and the 4 bags of purchased gear back to Hanoi for shipping.

A "Black Hmong" woman catches a meal in between shifts of dyeing local hemp with indigo.

A Black Hmong woman catches a meal in between shifts of dyeing local hemp with indigo.

Laos, where I’ve been for the last few days, has been a whole different experience.  In Vientiane, I did a bit of hunting and located some good used masks from the Ta Oi people.  Then I was invited to my friend Phout’s (one of the natural dyers from Houaphan Province) daughter’s house for dinner, to meet Phout’s first grand-baby – 2 month old Nui.  Phout’s daughter’s husband, Nan, was a fabulous translator, and it is really nice to have more friends in Laos.

Thick, chocolate-y, sweet but still bitter, and, one might say, "mighty powerful" Vietnamese coffee.

Thick, chocolate-y, sweet but still bitter, and, one might say, “mighty powerful” Vietnamese coffee.

Flew to Luang Prabang and had a magnificent time with friend and “sister-in-textiles” Vandara, who owns two guest houses, is a weaver of handspun organic naturally dyed cotton, promoter of all natural and traditional “handicrafts” of Laos, and an all around charitable, elegant, and lovely woman.  Vandara went with me to Vietnam last year, and met all of Thi’s family except Sho.  Just two months ago, Sho, her daughter Alice, and her French-born husband Antoine moved to Luang Prabang so Antoine could take the position of General Manager of the Victoria Xiengthong Palace Hotel, a hotel occupying the former Prince of Laos’ home.  Vandara invited Sho, Alice, and Antoine over for a home-made dinner (Vandara is a noted chef, among other skill sets), and I was so pleased to finally be able to introduce them.  I think Sho and Vandara will have a good friendship, and Vandara has all sorts of contacts for the family, including where Antoine can have new decorations made to accessorize his hotel.

Maren's sister-in-spirit and dear friend Vandara explains how she creates the dyes for her village's cotton textiles

Maren’s sister-in-spirit and dear friend Vandara explains how she creates the dyes for her village’s cotton textiles.

Yesterday, Sho’s family and I accompanied Vandara to her second guest house at Tat Kuang Si – the “big” waterfall about 45 minutes from Luang Prabang.  Beautiful, crystal clear water to swim in – a huge relief from the humidity and heat of Laos – and another excellent meal, including some fabulously delicious fish from the Mekong, blue tea made from flowers, limes, and mint, and other dishes including local mushrooms and organic herbs from her extensive gardens.  Once again, spoiled rotten.  I purchased many beautiful, traditional baskets from the Khamu villagers, and even bought a large, wooden, hand-carved elephant for myself (or the highest bidder!). Of course, in Luang Prabang, I also bought some of Vandara’s organically grown, handspun, naturally dyed, handwoven cotton yardage, as well as more beautiful silk scarves from our friend Bounmy.

Rice fields enjoy Laos' summer monsoon season.

Rice fields enjoy Laos’ summer monsoon season.

I have also had a great time searching out items for two European customers – one looking for tribal aluminum items, and another looking for any textiles with gibbons or representations of gibbons in them.  I found Red Dzao (Yao) pants with geometric representations of gibbon prints, and a cloth book with an embroidered gibbon.  I have more research and textiles to see in Houaphan Province.  The aluminum has been harder to find – the markets in Luang Prabang are not as diverse as in past years, and I have already found what I consider “the good stuff” – I’ll keep looking though!

In Phonsavan, I am meeting up with friend Mai (from Houaphon) and her son Bingo, and, in two days, we will be driving to Xam Neua, stopping in several weaving towns on the way to add to the collection.

Josh and Zall will join me in Xam Neua for the rest of the trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again!