Project Phongsali: Our full team is now in place! We’ll try to be respectful guests in Sop Houn.
The team arrived last night about 8:00 PM! They were both a sight for sore eyes and a sight to see. The last 60 miles or so they were on a dirt road that I covered last week with the truck windows rolled up tight to keep out the dust. Unfortunately, these guys were in the back of an open truck. They used scarves and bandanas to protect their faces but had no other cover. When they dismounted the truck and began slapping each other on the back clouds of dust billowed above them. When they tried to wash their faces under our water tap the dust in their hair turned to mud that ran down their necks.
But, within an hour, the guys had the truck unloaded and their gear stashed under the hospital eves. They were all bathed and dressed in clean uniforms. As the fellows were unpacking and cleaning up, word spread throughout the village that the team we’d been promising had actually arrived. Several villagers dropped by the camp to invite the entire team home for dinner.
Initially, our impulse was to decline the invitation. The guys had two freshly killed game birds that they’d bought from hunters along the way, with the intention of cooking for dinner. Earlier in the evening Yai had steamed some sticky rice and I had chopped up a variety of vegetables to stir-fry. In the end, sensing a party beer and whiskey to cut the dust, he guys scooped up the dead birds, the rice, and my vegetables and took off to one of the villager’s homes.
Yai and I stayed behind to guard all the newly arrived equipment, and to avoid the drinking that we knew the men were headed for. Yai’s still slowly on the mend from the chronic liver problem that put him in the hospital a couple of weeks ago and I, having been to a party earlier in the week where Lao whiskey flowed freely, preferred a dry night at home.
It is very, very, difficult to go to a party here in Laos and avoid drinking obligatory shots of lao-lao, Lao whiskey distilled from rice. People look more hurt than offended when you decline. If you yield and accept a tiny shot of the stuff, they brighten, congratulate you, and immediately fill your glass again, insisting that custom demands that you drink “just two”. Of course, if you finish the second, a third soon follows. I honestly don’t know what a recovering alcoholic would do here. Once, while nursing a back injury I went so far as to show people my bottle of pain medicine. I explained that if I drank alcohol on top of my medicine, I might die. They still poured me a glass. Go figure.
In addition to being invited to eat with villagers, the guys also received several invitations to sleep in homes rather than under the hospital eves with Yai and me. That’s when I put my foot down and reminded everyone that our’s is a closed camp with everyone accounted for each night. No bunking in the village.
From this day forward another hat that I’ll be wearing will be akin to that of fraternity housemother. Here I am with seven young guys all about half my age. They’re far from home, away from mothers, wives, girlfriends and other civilizing forces. They’re really good guys but a fun-loving, hard-drinking, hard-playing bunch, and so much more worldly than the villagers of Sop Houn, many of whom have never been more than twenty miles from home, never ridden in a car, never made a telephone call.
If the nine of us accepted every offer of hospitality that villagers have the impulse to offer, we’d quickly overwhelm the village. I hope to leave here in a month knowing that we did some good deeds, put some money into the local economy, broadened peoples’ world view a bit, and made some new friends. I’d feel bad if we in any way exploited the villagers’ generosity.
Consider what happens when our team of nine passes through a vegetable garden or sits under a mango tree. The “Lao way” is for passersby to help themselves to nature’s bounty. The custom holds that you can walk away from someone’s garden or fruit tree with what you put in your stomach, but you should not carry away anything in your hands.
When our sentries are on duty during a demolition, they are stationed in remote locations with the responsibility of keeping people from wandering too close to the bombsite. On uneventful days, with nothing much else to do, the sentries often forage for food and will return from their assignment with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, wild greens and even, on occasion, birds, snakes and other game. (I once caught a sentry heading to his post carrying a fishing net!) In addition to raising the question of how attentive the sentry will be to his duties, the foraging, in my humble opinion, takes food out of the villager’s world.
(I’m certain that England appreciated America joining forces during World War II. Still, after a while, the Brits were known to complain that the Yanks were “over paid, over sexed, and over here”. I’m wondering if that’s how the Sop Houn villagers are going to feel about our deminers in a few weeks.)
Tonight we’ll have a team meeting to discuss camp rules. Nothing I have to say will be new to the guys. We’ve worked together before and they all know my expectations.
Here’s a sampling of the rules the guys must follow:
Don’t litter the campsite.
Burn paper; bury plastic.
No loud music.
No beer or lao-lao in camp.
No girls in camp.
Speak to villagers in polite language.
Everyone sleeps in camp not in the village.
Stay out as late as you like but be out of bed by 6:00 AM.
Don’t use the lady’s toilet.
Maids will wash uniforms; men wash their own underwear.
Stay out of the food stores.
I don’t collect other people’s debts.