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!

Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts

 

Jarai Gravesite Guardian Spirit-Posts, Or

 What You Won’t Find At Our Sale

They were hardly visible – just an aged, gray stump sticking up amid the tall grass, on the shadow’s edge of a lush and untended grove of trees.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

A Jarai guardian of a grave peers over the grass.

Our guide, clad in a black business suit – daily business wear for office owners in Kontum, Vietnam – caught his breath.  “And this…” he puffed, “This is where some of my ancestors are buried.”  He took a white handkerchief from his rear pocket and wiped the beads of sweat from his face.

There was no breeze; some insect droned from the still trees. The sun felt heavy. Our guide tipped his hand to usher us forward. We slipped through the natural hedge on a thin path and a small village of haunting wood-carved spirits leaned in.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

A Jarai gravesite that is still being tended.

Traditional Jarai tombs are small huts that hold the possessions of the deceased and some offerings to appease the spirits. Wooden pillars topped by haunting carvings, representative of spiritual guardians, overlook each grave site. Traditional Jarai burial ceremonies are extremely expensive (involving many water buffalos and cows), and it may take a family many years to afford the proper burial rites for a loved one.  The graves are well-tended until the ceremonies are competed. After the final ceremonies, and after enough time has passed, the tombs are abandoned. The final abandonment ceremony marks the point where death becomes final and the deceased spirit is released. Nature then runs its course with the carvings.

A very old Jarai guardian spirit watches over its long-abandoned grave.

Teak wood, like cedar, takes long to decay, but the regular rains and heat of the region etches its influence upon the site. Each guardian is for each ancestor, and they to continue to be shaped by time and memory. A soul and a teak log can each take generations to dissolve.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

A spirit guard tends its duties.

But here, now, in this Jarai village of spirits with our guide and the sun is a moment of timelessness (and it’s just a moment).  Are the spirits  still here?  Can there really be a hundred years between a yesterday and a tomorrow? What is of our memories…

We have seen these posts for sale in tourist-focused shops that seek “western-sized” pockets.  The posts often still have a rotted, earthen stump, proof of being uprooted from its vigilant role.  Stacked in a corner of a shop, they look lost – and even older. The more shaped by time, the more valuable.  The more determined the features, the “better.”  The bigger, the more.

Each guardian in the shop leans: defeated, exiled. How could one remove such a treasure of time and memory, upsetting the order of decay?  Such items command the respect inherent in their purpose.

A newer guard.

A newer guard.

Some things are not meant to be traded or owned.

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Maren at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum’s Symposium in Bangkok & The Amazing History of SE Asia’s Silk Trade

Last November, I had the chance to attend The Queen Sirikit Textile Museum sponsored Symposium “Weaving Royal Traditions Through Time” in Bangkok, Thailand.  What a blast!  I met textile enthusiasts from all over the world, all of whom were enthusiastic about textiles and eager to share their knowledge and connections.   Additionally, we were truly given the royal treatment, being shuttled to museums and private collections in police-escorted, air-conditioned buses, and fed delicious food and drink.  As the kickoff event for the Queen’s Museum, this was an event to see!

1.In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

1. In Bangkok, at private showing of collection of Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textiles – Maren at back left of audience. Photo courtesy of John Ang, Samyama Co., Ltd., Taipei, a fellow conference attendee.

Aside from the pampering and meeting fellow participants (including the renown authors of our most used and treasured books on Laos textiles!), was an incredible 4-day orgy of information on and viewing of SE Asian textiles, with the primary focus on Thailand, but also extending to Indonesia, Laos, Japan, India, Malaysia, and even to England!

I had not grasped, until this symposium, the impact of politics and trade on the location of and production of textiles in SE Asia.  I often think of culture and clothing as being static from the point I first see them, but reality is constant change due to trade and imitating others’ work.  I also tend to categorize, for comfort and reference, a particular pattern/material/color as belonging to one person/place/time, but the truth is more flexible.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The front of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Now, some of the fascinating history:

400+ years ago, the predominant silk textiles in Thailand were saris woven in India delivered via sailing ships.  These ships sailed south and east in one season and north and west in the other, following the prevailing trade winds.  Due to the long trips, the merchants brought their religious advisors with them.  Thus, India exported not only their textiles, but also their religion and culture to Indonesia, Thailand, and surrounding areas.  Later, with steamer ships, came the ability to sail against the wind, speeding up trade throughout SE Asia.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Two of the Laos funeral banners from the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the women being dressed for the Khong performance in the brand new gold and red tapestries woven specifically for the dancers. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Royal court textiles in Siam (now Thailand) were made of saris and shawls worn in the Thai tradition.  That is why 7 meters of cloth (sari size) are used each for the traditional Thai skirt and pants.  The cloth was greatly valued in the royal courts, and certain fabric was given as payment to those doing service to the King, after which it was required that those textiles were used exclusively in court appearances.  Certain patterns and colors were restricted to royal use, and were forbidden to be used by the common people.  These restrictions are no longer enforced.  (Throughout this time period, local villagers continued to weave textiles, but without the direct support of the royal courts, wove only for themselves for their own clothing and religious purposes.)

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of   gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous!  Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A textile preservationist and her assistant at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum showing one of the Queen’s dresses – made of gold-wrapped silk thread – gorgeous! Photo courtesy of John Ang.

The culture exported from India most predominantly seen in Thailand and other SE Asian countries due to this trade is the royal dance and costume from the Ramayama.  Thus, while Thailand is a Buddhist country, the royal dance and theater is based on the battles between Hanuman and Garuda, and other Hindu Gods.   I had always wondered why predominantly Buddhist and Muslim countries had such similarity of religious costume and dance expression to India – now I know!

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

A male dancer being dressed in his Khong performance clothing – the dancers are sewn into their clothing to ensure the textiles stay in place during the athletic performances. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

As a result of this trade, Japan was importing a great deal of the Indian sari fabric from Siam in the 1600’s, leading Japan to believe that the textiles were Siamese in origin.  By the mid-1600’s, due to an influx of unwanted missionaries, Japan closed its borders to all but Dutch merchant ships.  Thus, the Japanese never learned that the silk saris were made in India, resulting in the name given to them of Sayama, indicating an origin in Siam.  The Japanese treasured these textiles, again for portions of royal court dress, and also used the saris to make covers for teapots, to cover boxes holding tea implements, and other culturally important wrappings.  The Japanese also tried to duplicate these saris, but, as the Japanese were painting the silk, and the Indians were dying it, the Indian made saris retained their color much longer and so were preferred.

Textile production is also greatly impacted by economic/political decisions.  For example, in the 1850s, Siam made a trade agreement to provide rice in exchange for textiles, and from that point on, the people in the center of Siam switched from weaving to solely agriculture.  Even now, other than some people who have migrated into the center of Thailand, the area has a distinct lack of textile production.  Again, economic drivers trumped cultural norms, though the long-range impact of the shift to solely agricultural production cited here amazes me.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of the antique Laos textile ends from a shaman cloth which is part of the Tilekke & Gibbons Collection textile collection. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

Also, during much of this time, regions of Laos were under the auspices of Siam or China, paying respective tribute to their King or Emperor.  Local rulers paid homage in return for the court clothing and protection of their respective royal patrons.  This is yet another example of how fashion and textile motifs and designs spread.

Now, for the more modern influences that caused silk to rise as an economic and cultural phenomenon in Thailand.

When the current Queen Sirikit came to her position, the royal dress of Thailand was western – it had been mandated as such since 1941.  When she traveled to NE Thailand in Isan when she was 23, she saw locals wearing skirts of their own weaving, and she commissioned them to weave her some of the stunning textiles.  This was the beginning of her ongoing support of weaving in Thailand.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

One of Queen Sirikit’s dressed worn on her European tour with the King in the 1960s – stunning cloths representing the best of Thai textile weaving and design. Photo courtesy of John Ang.

When she and King Rama IX toured Europe in 1969, She designed her entire wardrobe, half western and half her own design using traditional Thai clothing styles as an influence, with the assistance of several French and British designers.  Her wardrobe became a worldwide sensation, landing her at the top of the best dressed woman list in 1965, the first Asian woman to ever make the list.

Due to the Queen’s efforts, and the ensuing efforts of Jim Thompson, who started the Thai Silk Company in 1960, Thailand is now famous for, to the point of being synonymous with, silk.

Thanks for reading, and for your continued interest in learning more about the people behind the textiles of SE Asia.

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.

Xam Tai’s Floating Bridge

Xam Tai’s Floating Bridge

The Xam River, after crashing through the steep canyons of the virgin jungle of the Nam Xam Nature Reserve in western Houaphon, Laos, finally emerges into the exquisite Xam Tai valley, where it meanders lazily for several miles before tumbling again downhill, across Vietnam, to the Gulf of Tonkin.  The town of Xam Tai nestles the river in this valley, sitting luxuriously amid the green rice fields, a haven from a crowded and noisy world (although I will note that the Vietnam War years were a bit noisier…).

The valley widens to reveal lush rice fields and the wonderful village of Xam Tai.

To go beyond Xam Tai requires crossing the river.  Perhaps twice a day, an ancient rusted barge will hand-cranked across the river using a pulley/cable system; it will lug any 4 or more wheeled vehicles across the small river (slowwww-ly) so they may continue on a single lane dirt road to Ban Tao and other small villages.  Luckily, most people are on foot or motorcycle and can avoid the cost of the ferry by crossing right in town, next to the kid’s swimming hole, on …  well … on a floating bridge.

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The hand-powered crossing the Xam River. It’s the only way to get anything with 4 or more wheels across the river. A truck on the opposite side will wait until there is another vehicle or two to split the cost of a crossing.

The concept is simple – strap together this strong, hollow, freely available, rot-proof plant – bamboo – and just walk across it.

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We were dubious at first – being a little “heavier-set” than the locals.  And the bamboo platform did sink a bit, with water splashing an inch up the sides of our shoes.  “Walk faster,” crooned Zall.  Sure enough, a good pace assured nothing sank too deeply into the cool wet.

DSC00402The same rule of physics works for motorcycles. Once we had tippy-toed across, here come two motorcycles, one from either side, who gunned their motors in a rush to dash across.  Stopping would have been an assured soaking, so each driver focused on maintaining appropriate momentum and balance until reaching terra firma.  I could not exhale until each was safe.

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Rush hour.

 “You’d think they’d at least have railings,” said Ari.  Maren asked aloud, “I wonder how many people have had to go fishing for their motorcycle?”

 Another motorcycle zipped across, water rooster-tailing from the rear wheel.  He wove around a woman carrying a backpack basket full of firewood; the bamboo planks splashed and rolled a bit.

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We sat at that viewpoint for an hour watching the local traffic use this essential link.  And no, despite our anxiousness with every crossing, no one got wetter than a splashed ankle.

“It looks just like something you’d only find in Laos,” Zall commented.  And we all nodded.

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

Finding a Peak in Cotapaxi, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art Takes a Step

Dear Friends,

Welcome to Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art’s Blog: On The Fringe

For our regular readers, Above the Fray is excited to introduce some design changes. Our website just got updated, and we are also modifying our communications by moving from our “Quarterly Newsletter,” which for years has been available by “snail mail” and email pdf, to this new blog, aptly titled: On The Fringe.  We hope you will continue to connect with us here for our stories and photos – please feel free to friend us on Facebook as we will be investing more time in our social media communications as well.

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Maren and Josh traveling up the Nam Ou (River) in Phongsali Province, Laos.

Also, we are excited to welcome a newer audience as Above the Fray reaches out to expand contacts and interest.  Two exciting events will draw some curious eyes:

First, the Textile Museum of America (in Washington DC) is in the midst of a brilliant southeast asian textiles exhibit, and next week it all culminates in a conference where the folks who “Ooooh” and Ahhhh” the most over these textiles – like Maren – will be to share their passion, information and company.  Maren (and a good friend from the Seattle Weaver’s Guild) will be eager to learn and share with some gifted experts.

Two weeks later, the famous Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok is holding an international symposium on royal and other traditional textile arts of Thailand and greater SE Asia – Maren just got her plane ticket yesterday! The world’s greatest experts in these textiles will be presenting, and it gives Above the Fray a chance to put a “real face” forward internationally.  We know we have much to share, especially since we have “in the village” experience (and pictures, and textiles!) and well-developed personal and business relationships with many of the artists who today represent the highest level of expertise.

In between these two world-class events we will have our first showing in San Francisco, at the “Textile Bazaar” sponsored by The Textile Council of the Museums of San Francisco (on Sunday, November 3rd).  We’ll post separately about that event!

Above the Fray will also continue to hold its “Fine Silks and Tribal Arts” Events in the Pacific Northwest, and dates/locations for this upcoming season’s events in Portland and Eugene will be announced in the coming days.

Please stay in touch!  And onward to Zall’s newest venture below: