La Lumiere

The streets of Hoi An bend gracefully toward and away from the river, its Old Quarter a maze of roads too small for cars. Motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians vie for space between faded French colonial buildings of an almost-uniform antique yellow. Dominated by tailor’s shops and restaurants, the quarter seems like the world capital of hand-made clothes — and lights. Strung from one side of the street to the next and bursting from tiny store fronts, recently crafted cloth-and-bamboo lanterns disrupt the evening’s cloak with gorgeous abundance.

20130329-173423.jpg

When we arrive in Hoi An, we’ve been four days traveling, on at least as many modes of transport. We have bartered with a one-eyed boatman under a bridge, drawing numbers in the sand. We have braved a hail storm at the border with passports in hand, eaten bowl after bowl of pho in stolen moments between transport, and weathered the erosive forces of constant movement and the unknown.

Like usual, our lack of planning finds us at a bus station in Hoi An with nothing but the names of two potential hotels scrawled on a piece of scrap paper. We walk. It is forty-five minutes and four hotels later when we find a room off an alley, on an islet, looking out toward Old Town. Spilling out onto the main drag we find it closed to everyone but walkers. Yes!

Later, leaving Mark at dinner, I hurry out into the street to find a birthday candle for my travel companion. Miming “candle” to a street vendor turns out to be a skill more advanced than I could have imagined. Why, oh why did I never play charades? I get as far as incense. Not bad for body language and hell, I can light one on fire for a birthday wish. My vendor drives a hard, impossible bargain, not wanting to sell me only one stick of incense. Understandable, but I need a flame. Overhearing my dilemma, another vendor points me toward the street — ‘candle for the river, 10,000 VND’. Fifty cent candles by the river? Done. We head toward the water.

20130329-173704.jpg

Then, unexpectedly, at precisely 8:30 pm, for a reason apparent to everyone but us, an air raid siren blares three times and all the lights go out along shore. Throngs of people fill the streets on both sides of the water, buying candles in paper baskets, and descending into wooden boats to set their flames afloat in the river. Thousands of birthday candles, wish candles, good-luck candles float in a stream toward the horizon.

It is Earth Hour, an international hour of darkness started by the World Wildlife Fund to raise awareness for energy conservation. We find ourselves celebrating this moment in a city well-versed at honoring light amidst darkness. While the monthly Full Moon Festival is a practiced occasion, this night is packed, overwhelmed with the new and novel. We came for the Full Moon Festival but we arrived for Earth Hour.

Two nights later the Full Moon festival again dominates the night. Celebrated on the 14th day of each lunar cycle, all electricity is shut off, except for the lanterns forming a net of color overhead. Candle baskets beckon along the shore. In every store front, tables laden with offerings overflow with food, candles, and incense.

20130329-173623.jpg

20130329-173638.jpg

20130329-173653.jpg

Advertisements

Count your blessings…and eat them, too

In my left hand, I am holding a shallow bowl. It cradles: one cooked chicken, one unidentifiable black object, and one hard-boiled egg. Before me are two lighted candles, one recently constructed spire of silver and green, and the elders of Phonsin

Southern Lao PDR is hot, one of the hottest places I have ever been. For five weeks I have traveled in the company of noon-day temperatures that rest easy in the nineties. And with enough shade and water, it is a heat my body can understand. Within minutes of arriving in Savannakhet, it is readily apparent that this is heat of a whole different sort. But, we have come here to trek. And so, while the sane and rational people of Lao seek solace from the mid-day sun, we are headed into its gaze.

At 10 am, in the hottest place on Earth, our tuk-tuk drops us just outside of Savannakhet and, passing through a wooden gate, we walk into the woods. Temperature 100, feels like 112. We trek. The woods with our guide are a fascinating place. Populated with trees that drip flammable oil and bugs that, when eaten raw, have a spice like the hottest chilies. The first half of our walk was filled with discoveries like these:

20130326-075057.jpg

20130326-075116.jpg

20130326-075133.jpg

And then, perhaps inevitably, the heat breaks, as we trade woods for field and the sky trades sun for thunderclouds. Our quartet dashes across narrow paths winding through rice paddies; stopping at abandoned shacks and two open-air homes when the storm grows especially fierce. Us and the chickens, we waited:

20130326-075321.jpg

At half-past four, we walk into Phonsin, soaked and parched, a product of Earth’s forces. We are staying the night at the house of the village elder, whose daughter hands me a Laotian skirt as soon as I walk up, pointing toward the shower room. Grateful for dry clothes, I slip into my borrowed apparel. At 7:00, the Baci ceremony starts, the blessings begin.

In my left hand I am holding a shallow bowl. It cradles: one cooked chicken, one unidentifiable black object, and one hard-boiled egg. The elders of Phonsin circle me, each speaking in Lao, and each tying one strand of white cotton around my left wrist. Blessings for the traveler, the newly returned, and as far as I can tell by looking at wrists, babies and the elderly. This seems good company to keep.

When the blessings have finished, I am brought a bowl of water, and instructed to peel and eat the egg from the shallow bowl in my hand. It now contains the blessings and I can take them into my body. In this unexpected moment is a reminder of the innumerable powers we give to food. From its sustenance, we draw connection, deep nourishment, and here and now, the power of intention, of hope, of the divine.

20130326-075618.jpg

20130326-075606.jpg

20130326-075627.jpg

Moving along the Mekong

The People’s Democratic Republic of Lao (Lao PDR) seems given its life blood by the vein of Mekong River that winds through it. Since crossing a slender section at the country’s northern border with Thailand, its water has hardly left our sight. We have been in its presence for seven sun rises and seven sun sets. Last night, during our latest passing of the sun, we ran hundreds of meters across its dry river bed between sidewalk and shore. Here are some of my glimpses from the river and our first major stop along it:

20130316-095255.jpg

20130316-104059.jpg

20130316-104107.jpg

20130316-095434.jpg

Luang Prabang:

20130316-095454.jpg

20130316-095509.jpg

20130316-104548.jpg

20130316-095521.jpg

20130316-104025.jpg

20130316-104347.jpg

20130316-104433.jpg

20130316-104520.jpg

Leave your Expectations at the Shore

The Mekong slinks by in the foreground, forming nature’s unassuming border between Thailand and Laos. In the shadow of its shore we stand at the counter: Passport Immigration. “You are leaving Thailand today? I will stamp your passport,” says a man in uniform, who seems used to doing such things. This is it. Time to board a boat and cross a spit of water that could be easily swum if not for its steady current — and a healthy fear of deep water. Here goes. Goodbye language, goodbye baht, goodbye meager understanding. Time for the next frontier.

The guidebook lists its fast facts for Laos, most notably in the medical section. Meant to reassure, or at least inform:

“If you find yourself afflicted with anything worse than traveler’s diarrhea, its best to head to the closest Thai border.”

“In Vientiane, dial the following numbers [for emergencies]: fire 190, ambulance 195, police 191. There are no emergency numbers for the rest of the country.”

“You are leaving Thailand now”, asks our border official. Deep breath. Yes, we are leaving now.

We arrive in Huoaxyai at least 45 seconds after taking off from Chiang Khong, perched in a boat commandeered by a man with no shoes and many lines of wisdom on his face. And just like that “Sawa dee kha” becomes “Sabai dee” and “Khob Khun Kha” becomes “Khop jai” and, perhaps most alarmingly $1, which so recently became 30 baht, becomes 7,896 kip. This small fact throws my whole navigation system out of whack, as though someone has moved the iron in my inner compass.

Just as I was momentarily country-less, having exited Thailand with no visa for Laos, I am now money-less in a new land. First stop, ATM. Please choose the amount you would like to withdraw. The options stare back at me: 80,000 kip, 150,000, and upwards. I settle on 1,000,000 kip, a mind-boggling number, and discreetly count the 50,000k bills, placing them in my purse.

Then, it is on to provisions. They entire town of Houaxyai has the feel of a pass-through: border to interior. The tourist market is geared toward travelers taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. That’s us. With no food and water provided on board, we’re told it’s essential to bring our own. Storefronts hawk sandwiches for the journey, 10,000kip. I balk, too expensive, muy cado, but then pause. What it this? Eight dollars? Twelve? Or, in truth, one dollar and twenty-five cents. I order for morning pickup. “Kha”, I say, “I mean, thank you. Khop jai”.

Where am I?

The mind reels and I am grateful to know that we are such adaptable creatures; synapses forming endless new pathways amidst the confusion.

For the Love of It

Sometimes we forget why we love the things we do, incorporating them into the area of being as natural to us as breathing, sleeping, eating. And then, sometimes, we are reminded in the most nourishing and unexpected of ways.

Yesterday, I signed up for a cooking class with Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School, just outside of Chiang Mai. Sammy himself came to pick me, and five other farangs, up from our guesthouses, and whisked us off on the day’s adventures. First to the market, where the senses were saturated with abundance and epicurean symmetry:

20130302-094932.jpg

20130302-094941.jpg

20130302-094859.jpg

Then, we were off to Sammy’s fourth-generation family farm. Let me just say that there is nothing like gardening in a tropical climate. Peppers, eggplants, and pumpkins grow with great abandon, amidst lemongrass stalks that shoot four feet into the air. Trellises of blue pea and tiny sprigs of wildflowers provide a delicate balance to the audacious and verdant greenery. It was here, touring the kitchen garden, prominently bridging house and rice field, that I found myself surrounded by the familiar. Ah yes, growing food, mi amore.

20130302-151212.jpg

After several hours of cooking and feasting, Sammy insisted we take advantage of the many shaded hammocks set up throughout the garden, for an afternoon nap before our second round of cooking, and feasting (Hard living, I know). As I settled in and came to stillness, the garden around me flickered with life: birds eating bugs eating leaves, wings flitting in all directions. And I remembered, in a new way, ‘This is what a garden is — a place where we invite life’. In an ecologically diverse garden you don’t have to control all the elements. Just create the canvas, nature will do the rest.

20130302-143842.jpg

20130302-143900.jpg

20130302-143942.jpg

In a world of paradox and complexity, it seems like there are too seldom solutions which don’t themselves create other unfortunate problems. Because of this, environmental and social issues can often seem at odds. The opposite is true in an organic garden, in the very best of ways.