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

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

A night to remember – if you can.

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

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

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

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

The post-basi meal being set out for consumption.

The post-basi meal being set out for consumption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. “Fern Frond Animals” Siovan

Mr. “Fern Frond Animals” Siovan 

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

Mr. Siovan at his home.

Mr. Siovan at his home.

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

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

Mr. Siovan shows us two of his fern creations.

Mr. Siovan shows us two of his fern creations.

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

Mr. Siovan holds one of his own baskets.

Mr. Siovan holds one of his own baskets.

Raising Silk for the World’s Finest Weavers: Adventuring to Ban Tao, Houaphon Province, Laos

Raising Silk for the World’s Finest Weavers: Adventuring to Ban Tao, Houaphon Province, Laos 

Our saungtheaw, a pick-up style public “bus” with two hard benches in the bed, finally emerges from the narrow rutted jungle track that had followed the tumbling Xam River for an hour, and we lurch to a stop in front of Ban Tao’s sole store.  Our family and Mai, our translator and good friend, and several others along for the ride, stretch the kinks from our jarred bones and, seeking shade from the close and humid sun, huddle in the shade of a scraggly papaya tree.  A half dozen locals adults, and perhaps 15 kids, all crowd close.  It had been a couple years, we are told, since anyone remembers white people visiting their town.

The road to Ban Tao.

The road to Ban Tao.

The store sells canned and dried goods as well as Chinese-made tools and plastics.  Several varieties of potato-chip-like snacks in bright foil packets wait for attention.  A fridge – and electricity, although sporadic, has only recently reached Ban Tao – proudly displays cold cans of Coca-Cola and bottles of Beer Lao and water.  A few baskets of fresh vegetables and jungle fruits sit in front, seeking customers.  A 10-pound iguana, with a trickle of blood on it’s alert face, is leashed with a rope to a wooden post – no, one won’t find fresher meat in the area.  (And guess what Mai’s family had for dinner that night!).

Arriving in front of the store in Ban Tao.

Arriving in front of the store in Ban Tao.

We had traveled to Ban Tao because it is renown for its sericulture.  For generations, this small village of perhaps a couple hundred people has been central to raising the highest quality silk required by the incredible weavers of Houaphon Province.

Ban Tao’s head inspects the silkworms.

Ban Tao’s head inspects the silkworms.

The elected head of the village appears, and Mai introduces herself and us.  He nods and says he is honored that we would come to their village, but he is sad that we have come during the monsoon season as this was not a time for harvesting the silk – they just keep enough silk worms going to maintain their “crop” for the best growing season.  He leads us, and the growing contingent of curious kids, to a small thatched roof house and immediately directs a group of young people to start a fire. He was determined to show his special guests the full sericulture process.  Smoke filled the now-crowded room – ten, fifteen, twenty people crowd in.  Zall, eager to escape both the crowd and billowing smoke, pulls out a frisbee and a gaggle of boys rush out to play in the dirt-track street.  The village head excuses himself – he has to attend an important function in recognition of a local policeman’s promotion.

Silkworms eating mulberry leaves.

Silkworms eating mulberry leaves.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Some silk cocoons appear, presumably a few months old, and an elder woman, who was obviously now in charge of the production, quickly sets up pots of water to boil and pulls out a set of long sticks that helps her handle the cocoons.  Maren wears a full smile, a bead of sweat hanging on her nose; Mai is trying to translate for three simultaneous talkers; a baby starts to cry.  The grandmother sits down at the fire and the crowd pulls back a bit. Yielding the two long sticks as if they were batons, she demonstrates how one takes a worm’s now-boiled cocoon and delicately pulls from the tiny, papoose-like bundle strands of exquisite thread that has been the treasure of royalty for millennia.  We have seen the procedure before, but it seems important for our relationship with these kind people that they demonstrate their full expertise.  Who are we to dictate the pace of a visit or the content of the exchange?

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

Preparing the hot water and silk cocoons for the demonstration.

An hour later we are led to another home.  In the shade under the elevated floor, behind the fencing that keeps the roving chickens and ducks out, are trays of silkworms devouring fresh mulberry leaves.  The continuing “crop” of silk is being carefully nurtured.  Demand for silk is high (thanks especially to the growing wealth of neighboring China and Vietnam), and for Ban Tao, this is the essential source of business that has supported the village for generations.

Mai excuses herself to spend some personal time with an aunt and uncle who live in town (what town doesn’t she have relatives in?!).  It must be exhausting to have Lao and English grammar jabbering simultaneously in one’s head, and we’ve always greatly appreciated the fact that Mai has never hesitated to set aside some personal time to “clear the noise.”  It also forces us to practice our Lao language skills and hone our skills for developing connections without the benefit of a spoken vocabulary.  Luckily, smiles and laughs, hand and body signals, and the willingness to be a bit of a ham has taught us that clarity can be sacrificed without a loss of personal connectivity and deeper, shared human understandings.

Mai, in green, translates for us as we learn about local sericulture.

Mai, in green, translates for us as we learn about local sericulture.

The sun’s bake drives us into the cool comfort of the village head’s home, a cement-brick structure with wooden shutters on the windows and a corrugated metal roof.  The chief is still at the promotion party, but his wife treats us to glasses of cool water (from a bottle, thank you!), and then she pulls out some older silks made in previous generations.  Mai returns just in time and Maren and the chief’s wife engage in a deep discussion about the difference between older and newer textiles, local dyes, and the village’s sericulture tradition.  I watch Maren secretly drool when a 50-year-old handwoven silk mosquito-net border appears.

Main Street, Ban Tao.

Zall and Maren on Main Street, Ban Tao.

Zall stretches out in front of a slowly-turning fan and seems to melt into the ever-so-slightly-cooler vinyl floor.  It is hot.

Escaping into the bright heat, I hear pop music up the hill and turn my head.  Some man – the village head it turns out – is waving for me to join.  Then another dozen faces peer over a bamboo balcony, and a young man and woman, with big smiles, rush down to my side and insist, with a flurry of words, that I join the party.  I’m handed a short glass of Beer Lao, and, following local tradition, I offer a nod of thanks and slork it down in one gulp (ah – a cold one on a hot day can be a good thing!).  I hand back the glass only to be handed another a moment later, and then a tray of unidentifiable fried meat chunks (dog?) is offered, and a plate of bananas and some other plum-like fruit and then another glass of beer.  The Lao pop music – what I believe to be the same couple songs playing over and over –  is turned up.  The gentleman getting the promotion, who to me looks no older than 16, throws his arm around me and says something in a loud, slightly-slurred voice and everyone, including me, laughs.  More toasts, more beers and then a giant jackfruit is cut open and shared.  The village head comes to my side and over the din of a sappy pop song and the laughter offers what seems to be a more serious-minded toast.  He looks me straight in the eye, and drinks the short glass himself.  Immediately he refills the glass and hands it to me.  I offer, in English, what I hope sounds like a humble thank you and then lift a toast to our shared moment of friendship and joy and indulgence.  Everyone cheers – common language is so overrated sometimes.

A Ban Tao elder poses with her silk coffin cover she wove when she was 17 years old.

A Ban Tao elder poses with her silk coffin cover she wove when she was 17 years old.

An hour later, just as the promotion party was dispersing, Maren and Zall, each with an armload of new treasure, track me down.  “It’s alright” I stammer.  “I’ll just take a catnap on the ride back…”

The next day, back at our accommodations in the more central town of Xam Tai, the head of Ban Tao suddenly appears.  He has a friendly business relationship with our dear friend Souk, a master dyer and weaver, at who’s home we are staying.  We share some food and drink (again the traditional exchange of beer – at 10 AM – although not enough to alter the day’s trajectory of tasks).  Mai translates that the most important reason he visits today is to play a game of petanque (bocce ball) with me, one-on-one, on the small court set up in Souk’s front area.  Mai’s eyes tell me that his invitation is formal and important – we had not yet had our full time together.

A young weaver shows off her creation.

A young weaver shows off her creation.

I can’t remember who won.  But that shared half hour of petanque has really stuck with me.  You don’t need shared language to share time and purpose and affection.  We smiled and chatted in our respective languages, the content of the words secondary to the meaning of the communication.  We laughed at our errors, cheered at our luck.  Fate and opportunity – the ties that create friendships and business and purpose on all human levels – had created a bond that needed only be acknowledged to be empowered.  Our roles were assured; our relationship formalized.  And perhaps, in a small but important way, our larger purpose validated.

Where’s the Meat? – by Zall, age 16

Where’s the Meat? –  by Zall, age 16

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

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

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

Fish grilling in preparation for laap.

Fish grilling in preparation for laap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sho in a rare contemplative moment during her Hmong wedding.

Sho in a rare contemplative moment during her Hmong wedding.

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

Food and drink abound at a Hmong wedding party!

Food and drink abound at a Hmong wedding party!

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

Sho and Ti - our guiding sisters and friends!

Sho and Ti – our guiding sisters and friends!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ari, Sho, Maren, and Zall.

Ari, Sho, Maren, and Zall.

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

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

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

Ari Interns for MAG in Laos

Ari Interns for MAG in Laos

Our 19-year-old son, Ari, traveled regularly with us until this last year.  Here he submits his own summer ventures:

For the last two months I have been an intern in Vientiane, Laos for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-profit, nongovernmental organization whose mission is to help civilians recover from the atrocities of war – in Laos, MAG’s work strives to minimize the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left from the Vietnam (“American”) War.

Ari plays with a child in Vietnam.

Ari plays with a child in Vietnam.

My primary mission was to complete the initial paperwork for establishing a visitors’ information centre (VIC) (yes, the English spelling since MAG is UK-based) in Vientiane.  I first had to do quite a bit of research to back up the fact that a VIC in Vientiane was a good investment.  This was the best part of my work there.  In order to establish that there was a demand, I stood in the tourist section of town and chatted with anyone who didn’t look local while explaining MAG’s mission, the problem of UXO in Laos, and getting people to fill out surveys.  It was fantastic to go out and talk with people about an issue that is pertinent to the everyday lives of locals.  I was amazed how many people were completely unaware of not only MAG’s work, but also the fact that there are UXOs littering Laos.

A variety of war paraphernalia on display in a guide service office in Phonsavan, Laos.

A variety of war paraphernalia on display in a guide service office in Phonsavan, Laos.

I also got to work with the established VIC in Phonsavanh, a town in the heart of the UXO crisis, whose small MAG-info center has been greeting visitors for years.  I spent several of my first days in Phonsavanh, familiarizing myself with the progress that had been made in the VIC since I had last been there as a tourist.  MAG really had spiffed it up!  The cinema for showing recently-made documentaries had been moved downstairs, the displays had been changed to be more visible, the merchandise had been rearranged and hung up, and a new sound system and projector screen had been installed in the cinema.  On my visits to Phonsavan I was able to offer that VIC some advice on attracting more western tourists, but getting a VIC established in Vientiane, where there is a larger tourist crowd, will offer MAG a lot more exposure.

The last several weeks of my time in Vientiane were spent assisting other NGOs.  I spent a week with the International Nongovernmental Organization (INGO) Network to update their directory of NGOs in Laos.  Another week was spent with an organization called Learning House (LH).  I went through their library and labeled the books so that they could be catalogued into a database.  This work was surprisingly enjoyable.  Since all of the books had been donated, some of them were a tad bizarre, like a book on why not to trust doctors and another on how coffee can kill you.  My co-workers everywhere made everything more fun.

Zall and Maren enjoy visiting with Ari (center) over dinner during his internship in Vientiane.

Zall and Maren enjoy visiting with Ari (center) over dinner during his internship in Vientiane.

My internship was productive and enjoyable; my supervisor and the MAG team in Laos were patient and supportive.  I owe special thank yous to Jennifer Lachman, director of MAG-USA, whose advocacy and support created the opportunity (I was MAG’s youngest intern ever, and the first from the U.S.), and Simon, my Vientiane supervisor, for putting me in a position to feel capable and valued.  I am going to miss Vientiane and the people whom I met there (and a big “Hurrah” to all Hash-House Harriers, from Vientiane to Earlham!), but, by the time that I finished my work, I was ready to come home.  I did miss my friends, family, and even Earlham College itself.

Swords into Plowshares, Bombs into Spoons: A Visit to the Recyclers of Napia, Laos

Swords into Plowshares, Bombs into Spoons: A Visit to the Recyclers of Napia, Laos

A Lao bull wears a bell made from a piece of a bomb.

A Lao bull wears a bell made from a piece of a bomb.

Weʼre sharing dinner with our hosts in Napia, a small village on the savannah-like “Plain of Jars” in NE Laos, and turn our heads at the sudden rumble of thunder. A monsoon storm – common in the late afternoon – would mean a hasty retreat on these rutted dirt roads. Our host laughs. “No rain today,” he says through our translator. “Those are the bombies.” Each day, as the sun sets, the daily “take” – that is, the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found by detonation-teams (with metal detectors) and local farmers – are safely detonated. “The fields are on the hill over there,” says our host, waving his hand toward the setting sun. “The clearance team comes in every year. Youʼd think you get them all, and then every year more just come out of the soil, right in the field.” He shrugs. “Itʼs a way of life here.”

 A MAG team member searching for  unexploded ordnance near Napia, Laos.


A MAG team member searching for
unexploded ordnance near Napia, Laos.

Napia and its 50 families, by virtue of living in an intensely bombed area from 1964-73, have created a unique relationship with shrapnel, bombies and the tons of wartime scrap and ordnance that litter the region: they survive on it.

Thanks to the increasing value of metals, locals in Napia have developed a recycling industry to give the villagers a source of support above the baseline of subsistence farming, all the while ridding their soils of dangerous UXOʼs. Napia invested in several small foundries, each operated by a local family, which can melt scrap aluminum. The molten metal is poured into molds to create raw cast spoons, bangles, bottle openers, and other small implements. The molds are made by compacting wet fireplace ash into wooden frames and imbedding a spoon, or other item, into the mold to create a template. A few other Napia families formed a weaving cooperative and together, the metal and local weaving businesses have built a community center, with a welcome sign in English, to attract visitors and a rare but needed commodity: cash.

A Napia spoon-maker shows offf her latest creation, still in the mold.

A Napia spoon-maker shows offf her latest creation, still in the mold.

The regional capital, Phonsavan, which has an airport and is the take-off point for tourists wanting to visit the pre-historic jar sites that haunt the plains, is only an hour from Napia, assuming the road is passable. Khen, our local guide and translator, knew of our long-standing relationship with MAG, and had recommended that we visit this village to get another vantage point on the warʼs impact and the resiliency of a proud people. The fact that his buddy operates one of the backyard smelters just happened to be a coincidence, weʼre sure!

Defused old mortar shells rest next to items  made from their aluminum parts

Defused old mortar shells rest next to items
made from their aluminum parts

Thus we not only got a guide and translator, but we were then encouraged to spend the long afternoon in the shade of our hostsʼ, and Khenʼs friendʼs, home learning about the local collecting, recycling and distribution processes. Soon, stories about our lives are being shared, and then weʼre all chipping in for a few bottles of Beer Lao (an excellent lager available everywhere in Laos). A bottle of homemade lao-lao (rice- whiskey) appears, and the cordial traditions are carried out. [At this point, one woman took charge of the smelting process and continued, most business-like, to make new spoons for the next two hours.]

Sitting in front of the kiln with the molds, pouring more spoons.

Sitting in front of the kiln with the molds, pouring more spoons.

A few other locals join the gathering and the chatter goes up a touch in volume. Zall is madly snapping photos of faces, and everyone laughs and wants to see their image on the cameraʼs back panel. The molten aluminum is smoking, the pillowy clouds ease across the sky, the verdant extended rice fields shimmer in the humidity, and we are lulled into the world of Lao hospitality with the warm rich smells of earth and water-buffalo and woodsmoke.

Bomb casings repurposed as house supports - the wood supports need to be first placed on stone so the termites donʼt eat into them.

Bomb casings repurposed as house supports – the wood supports need to be first placed on stone so the termites donʼt eat into them.

“You stay for a meal?” our host inquires. Our relaxed translator is all smiles. “Weʼd be honored.” Soon a live duck is brought to us, and our approval apparently indicates that this is indeed dinner. No one rejects our offer to pay the market rate for the duck, or for a second case of Beer Lao. For hors dʼoeuvres, the host pours the raw, drained duck blood onto a plate, sprinkles on rice flour for thickening, and adds what smells like basil. A hush falls across the dozen or more locals and our host speaks a few words to honor his guests, and then, aluminum spoon in hand, he gives to us the first big taste. Politeness is a powerful motivator, and we nod graciously to our host with our bright-red glossy- lipped smiles. The crowd laughs, snacks are shared, someone offers another toast, and the sun edges toward the hazy hills.

Our hostess files the rough edges of the spoons before sale.

Our hostess files the rough edges of the spoons before sale.

Dinner is delicious – duck (machetted into little pieces, as seems to be the practice) with ginger and chilis, duck soup, plates of aubergines, fresh bananas and other fruit, and, of course, mountains of sticky rice. What a celebration; what a pleasure. Every day we learn from others.

The thunder – the “bombies” – wakes us up from the fuzz of a spirited late afternoon; the reality of where and who we are is suddenly redrawn in the slant of the old sunlight. We offer thank yous and bows and smiles and hand-shakes, and pay for a bucket-load of spoons and bangles (which we will have available as a fundraiser for UXO eradication).

The first spoon dips into the bowl of fresh duck blood and herbs.

The first spoon dips into the bowl of fresh duck blood and herbs.

We offer our deepest “Thank You” to essential programs such as Mines Advisory Group (an NGO) and UXO- Laos (Lao govʼt), which provide the skilled expertise of UXO location and clearance so that generations of civilians may live more safely on their own land.

Josh holds a defuused bomb that was  found near Napia.

Josh holds a defuused bomb that was found near Napia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sho and her large, extended Black Hmong family.

Sho and her large, extended Black Hmong family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Chola & Her Family

Meet Chola & Her Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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