Thursday, February 6, 2014

Little Houses on the Prairie


Cutting out of Phonsavan, westward on the National 7, I was on the lookout for the cutoff north toward the Nam Kham River. The road rose gently until I was on a plain, settled with small homesteads.

The farms were spaced far from each other and I can only imagine the feeling isolation and loneliness the families must have who live in them. Nestled in a hollow between two gentle crests, a fine line of smoke broke through the late afternoon cold blue light.

The earth was brown. The dry season: gone were the myriad shades of Indochinese green.

Generally on bike trips I try to be within shelter by 5 PM, knowing that darkness descends upon the earth by 6, summer and winter. But now it was so damned cold that I chose 4 PM to be my deadline so I could at least have a little bit of sun heat during my shower.

Shower. Nice word for it. My nicest experience was bathing in a river with the entire village during my last trip, but usually washing in a village means heading for the communal pump wearing my sarong and pouring freezing cold mountain water with a bucket on my protesting body and head. There is nothing for it but to grin and take it, since you know you can never sleep comfortably caked in road grime. And yes, you do have to wash your hair, so that means not just a simple toilette du chat, but three whole rinses with gusto and breath stopped short.

Then there is a magic moment as the goose flesh gets some sun and the weariness of the day's ride is replaced by the sweet fatigue and knowing you are safe and sound in someone's home.

How that works is very simple, although always accompanied by some degree of trepidation as well. This case was no exception. I was wary of the steppe. I didn't like it. It reminded me too much of my Grandmother's description the the Ukraine, but having no choice I cut off the main road and entered the village of Ban Man. There were a few wealthy homes, I was told they were those of the nay ban, the Village Chief – the man you have to speak to. It will come as no surprise to any seasoned traveller that the houses of the rich were resolutely closed to me; shaking heads, averted gazes, ຫົວໃຈ​ສີດໍາ.

It will also come as no surprise that the people who welcomed me with open arms were the poorer people in the village, the simple wooded house, the cold water wash, the cooking hearth on the floor.

Or, to quote R. Shalom Shabazi:

אִם נִנְעֲלוּ דַּלְתֵי נְדִיבִים דַּלְתֵּי מָרוֹם לֹא נִנְעֲלוּ

Dinner was, although not kosher, delicious. Food bits hanging over the hearth had been smoked for days. The ubiquitous sticky rice was steaming hot and there we all sat, father, mother, daughter, grandchildren ... all of us bundled up as much as we could be against the cold. Because it was cold. Damned cold. I tried to put a brave Canadian face on it, but cold is cold and a drafty house is, well, full of drafts.

After getting into bed, the pater familias piled about six thick blankets on me and I said a silent prayer to the Lord of all Bowel Movements to spare me a tundra driven trip to the outhouse located at the far end of the garden. I was, like so many believers before me, to be disappointed in my deity's lack of tenderness, for solicit Him as fervently as I did, at 3 AM I was driven from my warm nest into the cruel depths of the mountain winter.

The Lord, as we all know, works in mysterious ways, because it was thanks to this that I was able to see that rarity of modern life: a fully clear moonless night with stars sparkling uninhibited by city lights, their pinpoints of loneliness calling out to Earth from beyond the truly frozen galaxies.

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