Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good Things Mae Kham.

We said goodbye over and over to the students at Chanthone Technical College. Our bags already packed in the truck, we’re leaving Savannahket Province at the lunch bell. I get the feeling 3+ hours to Aunt Mae Tao’s (pronounced Mate-ow) village will be the most rustic yet. And nothing could have prepared me for it.

One very shy girl in the front row, hardly spoke either day, but tried.
Hands were popping up, they are not reserved like yesterday. Questions from all of them. Are you teaching tomorrow? Where are you going? What is the average temperature in the United States? Do you know the Lao word for flower? When are you coming back? Will you come back? Farewells are stretched, neither wanting to part. We took pictures, embraced, and finally, as they funneled outside in their make-shift uniforms, the shy girl stayed back.
She looked directly at me and said, “Teacher, you beautiful”. That’s when I lost it completely.
I hugged her until I thought she would break. This 18 year old girl lives somewhere so difficult it would be insulting to her, for me to even think I could comprehend it. She is the definition of Lao flower. And I want to take her home and show her what she can do. But I can’t even do it for myself, and it cuts me in half. Inside I’m embarrassed and ashamed for opportunities I’ve blown off in my life because I was stupid. I guess the only saving grace is that I’m learning.

We thanked the administrative staff for having us, took a portrait of each person, writing down their proper full name and position. My favorite was Sytha (chee-ta). He taught agriculture, spoke zero English, and his smile and laugh made us instant friends (see video). Justin will set up a blog/website for the school. We handed them some supplies brought from home (tape, pens, pencils, sharpeners, paper clips, notebooks), saving most of our big stash for the village elementary school. We have no “appointment” with those little dudes, but will find out how to say Sabai Dee (hello).

On Rte. 13 my mind was full, my soul was breathing, my own problems fit me.
I’m privileged to have done what we just did. And the challenge is not over. We have to somehow not forget this experience back in our real lives.
So far, Justin and I have been staying at bizarre hotels and guest spots built for communist dignitaries and prostitutes, both long dead. I am so nervous and thrilled to see where Justin’s Aunt lives. His mom, Sivilay (who lives in Olympia, WA, and whom I’ve never met), is waiting there too, and I could really use a mother’s arms. Through cell phone squawks, I can hear how excited they are that we’re coming, and it’s physically pulling us closer.

In my head I know there’s chickens, maybe some goats, and no plumbing. What does that mean? I don’t speak the language (I know “Hello”, “Thank You”, “My Name Is Rachel”), and I’m staying with a big extended family who want to catch up with each other. Will I be the weird exchange student that no one knows how to walk around? Am I finally Long Duck Dong? Will I be the one to get the biggest hospitality piece of tripe? I’m terrified of offending. Will I get sick? My malaria pills should keep me safe. I’ve never even been CAMPING for Christ sakes. I’m anxious to know what I can’t handle, and it’s probably showing on my face. All this is in my head though. Down in the back seat, I’m using 2 rolls of toilet paper as a pillow. 
Suddenly Justin says, as we pass the more dire slums of Khone Sedone, “We’re here, make a right”. I bolted up.

He and Bouhker started joking about rain, and how it’d better not, and about getting stuck last week, and rice machines, and I get nervous. What are you talking about? We start in and immediately use 4 wheel drive to it’s maximum. At one point we balance on 2 right wheels, leaning to the left as not to flip. The potholes on this dry dirt road are feet deep, I hold onto the handle above the back window with both hands, I’m flying off the bench. We’re going less than a mile an hour. It’s exciting and heart-pounding, it is the only way in or out to a “main road”. Villagers working, or walking, do a double take and stare at me through the window, as if I was an accident. I smile and wave like I’m insane.

Gold and green fields are being tended to by small groups of hunched over, triangular bamboo hatted people. Distant emerald hills draw a line in the sky. The people tie bundles of rice stalks, and cut the wheat-ish grass with a sickle. All by hand. For the most part, the rice in this country is all cut by hand. It goes into a blue, tractor/mixer/wood chipper looking thing. It spins the stalk as grain drops into a kind of reservoir. The stalks and excess dry plant shoot up in the air and then out through a vent, arching back down to the ground in an enormous hay pile. This could be the set of Apocalypse Now. Any Vietnam war movie, or view from a tropical helicopter you’ve ever switched off. It is the scene of humidity, of aching honor, and of a different way of life.
It is 1967 here, if it’s a day.

We start to reach a cluster of hand-built homes, all different materials. Laundry hangs on rails, giant plants take over in the most useful ways, framing everything exotically as it’s been for centuries. Children walking with purpose in the dust, riding old bikes and giggling past our truck. A whole day of chores and work ahead of them when they get home. They are so little.
We reach Mae Tao’s gate on the left, Justin hops out to move the double log barricade. There’s a cinderblock and wire fence along all sides of the property to keep large animals out. It’s picturesque. The house is cement and wood, 2 stories, tin roof. A green grass yard, cactus looking plants and orange flowers. Justin’s mom comes out as I leave the truck. She runs and hugs her son, and then hugs me tight like a daughter, out of her mind with joy that we’re finally here. I can see busy women peeking around from the back. A rooster is crowing. Clucking chickens run in circles. Water buffalo bow their heads to eat and wander the perimeter. Perfect golden sun sets over miles of brown grass, dotted with few canopy trees. It goes on forever, like I imagine The Serengeti would.

Mae Tao is Justin’s mom’s older sister. She speaks no English. We hug for a long, long time, and translate what each other desperately wants to say. I’m so happy to be here, welcome to my home. She’s got to be in her early sixties. Her face is lined with the sun and with experience. Her tiny little frame could lift a car. She is so powerful and kind. You can just tell.
I take my flips off and walk into the bottom half of the house. The walls are not fully attached to the ceiling, to let air in I guess. There is a long living room with some couches and a fan. A TV. Pictures of family. Keep walking toward the back and there’s a small refrigerator at the entrance to a large, open kitchen. All of the “cold” food preparation is done here, all meat cooking is done outside on 2 small hibachis (at varying heat).

I walk out back and there are 3 or 4 gorgeous, smiling women in their 30’s. Mae Tao’s 3 daughters, Phut (middle), Nouy (oldest) and Nang Noy (youngest). I bow and say Sabai Dee. I’m initiating the hugs and they are super warm right back, though of course shy. 2 little girls run away when they see me. Totally freaked out. I say Sabai Dee! I am constanly smiling, trying to put them at ease as much as they are trying to do the same. Mae Tao says, “Sorry her house not so nice”, I grab her and hug her tight and shake my head no, no, no. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Khawp Jai, Khawp Jai, Khawp Jai).

Before we arrived they spent the afternoon cooking, made piles of shredded cabbage, grilled chicken, cold noodles and sticky rice (only later would I find out they pulled out all the misshaped, browning rice grains so I would have all matching ones). This buffet is set out for Justin and I in the living room. They do not want us outside (that’s where everyone’s hanging out). They don’t want me to be in the kitchen, and I’m clinging to Justin a bit as he translates for me. He will be my talk box for the next several days, and he does an amazing job. Without him I would misread so much, and would have no clue how beyond beautiful my new hosts are, as well as every moment along the way.

I have to pee and experience the outhouse, a two room structure with corrugated tin doors. Left is for bathing, right is for toilet. I had to ask how. That’s how mixed up I feel. Justin told me to squat (thanks), feet on the grips, and then ladle in pots of water from the basin to flush it down. There’s a few rolls of tp in the corner on a bamboo rod, a billion tiny ants on the wall that I’m not afraid of, and some anti-bacterial gel. I immediately peed on my feet. How do they do this. What about periods? I have a billion questions.

Justin asks if I want to go visit the chickens. Yay! Mae Tao takes us on a walk behind the house to her coop. She loves her animals so much and seems to be telepathic with them. A huge pig lumbers along, as do water buffalo. Mae Tao held my hand on the walk, always wanting to touch me, make sure I’m ok. I’m so thankful for her. I motion my hand to the bucket of rice she’s carrying so I can help feed. She smiles that I’m not afraid. I am throwing rice at her buddies. I asked if the chickens were getting married. That one went over some heads. Then she picked a black one up like a ninja, lovingly chokes it into a hold, and she pets it to show me how. I pet it too. They love her.

When we walk back she holds my hand again. The nieces and some cousins have gathered, sitting out on the big bench back behind the kitchen. I decide to ambush them with jokes. I walk over, start saying “hi” a hundred times, laughing, and try to break ice in 100 degree heat. Justin translates for me, and I introduce myself to each person. We are all hysterical. They teach me hot “han”, rooster “Gai Poo”, hen, “Gai Mae”. We go slow and they are surprised at how eager I am and it relaxes us. I’m working hard to look like I’ve done this a million times and it’s exhausting me. Justin says they like me and I’m relieved. The girls will come into town with us tomorrow (the city of Pakse) to do some market shopping, emailing, and eating. They rarely get to go.

Now, a tiny old lady with short hair walked through the yard. Quiet as a tortoise, towel on her shoulder, she sat down next to me on the bench. She smiled this cute, genuine grin of shiny black teeth. I said “Sabai Dee!” and bowed. She returned the gesture. I hugged her sweetly, she was so fragile, maybe 90 lbs, and she leaned into me with love. No idea who I am. This is Mae Kham, Mae Tao and Sivilay’s oldest sister who lives down the road. She looks like she’s a thousand. She’s an excellent little hugger.
There are bugs and beetles and mosquitos flying into lights everywhere, but I have screens on the window in my room upstairs, and on the door. The only in the house. I head downstairs with my glasses and pjs on to join all the ladies. They watch the Thai soaps at 8 (no one’s really up past 9, they are up at 5 to clean, cook, etc). I just sit right in the pile of family like I’d been doing this my whole life.

Then, they see my legs.

So, you don’t really get a lot of Whiteys in the village. They are fascinated with my skin color. I gestured that it was o.k. to touch me, and rolled up my sleeves. Each of them held up an arm to mine comparing the color. They were mesmerized, and examining me in semi-disbelief. Then I lifted my skirt to the knee and it was an audible gasp from everyone. There’s more white! They were grabbing my calfs and smiling on the floor. It was the coolest moment of my life.
Mae Kham sat right in front of me, touching my skin with her tiny, thousand year old hands. I saw that she had once fractured her wrist badly and it wasn’t reset right. I picked up her tiny arms in my hands and tickled her palms gently. Putting my hands on the healed, fused lump of bone. She was watching my white hands on her dark hands, as this had never ever been done. It was so loving and comforting I can’t explain. It went on like this for an hour. I asked Justin to tell me if she was in pain, or if it hurt when I touched her. She said to him, “as long as I am touching her, she is good”.
This old woman walks miles up into the forest hills each day. She puts her arms shoulder deep into fucking fire ant hills to get their eggs. They attack her. She is made to last, and has, through wars, murders, government coups, starvation, and her current struggles of hunger and age. She’s up at dawn and moving well past dark when she stops by Mae Tao’s. She lives in a much smaller place, down the road.

She is the earth.
And when I try to close my eyes for sleep, animal sounds I do not recognize start to sing.


Garth said...

This is amazing. You are very blessed.

tamifair said...

Rachel, this really moved me to tears. I'm so happy you're getting to do this. xo