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:

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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:

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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.

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