Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sabaidee! Pai Sai?

Today I'm splurging.

And by splurging I mean using an actual computer to do actual planning for the next 2 months while eating a giant bacon burrito. I ordered the ham one first because in Laos ham is slang for penis and sometimes they can't help themselves but smile when they hear it.

I've been meaning to try and describe Don Det to friends through text but it is quite impossible. You just have to get here.

The meaning of the term "Time slows down" was probably born here. I should say... Here, it's swinging in a hammock, listening to someone's ukulele.

Imagine a place, so hot you don't want to move and neither do the locals. You find a quiet little restaurant overlooking the Mekong river (named Namkhong here, Nam means water) where you sit on a small mattress and eat on tables just inches off the floor. You get up only to turn the fan on. When the meal is done, you push your plate back and lay down on the floor and promptly fall asleep for 2 hours.

On Don Det, it is considered extremely rude to wake someone up from a nap. I fucking love it.

My first day back, as soon as I step on this holy soil I see Manni, 4-year resident and party animal. It is his tradition to greet the newcomers freshly off the boats. Next to him is Alex, a guy who was on Don Det at the same time as me last time I was here, 2 years ago. He was back to say hello too, turns out he came back exactly at the same time as me.


Another Manni tradition is to get the returning Don Det family members absolutely plastered. So after I set my bags down at One More Bar, give Ken a giant hug, say hi to my Lao family and distribute my meager gifts I head to Happy Bar where a giant joint is waiting.

It's about noon. By 4pm I am sleeping off the excess booze and herb on said small mattress in One More Bar. I wake up to eat something and have a good, hearty talk with Ken about everything. I missed this place so much.

At one point, Noua passed by on a bicycle. Noua is the neighbor's kid. She's witty, always laughing and always running everywhere - quite extraordinary for a Lao person - and last time it was our little game that I'd try to catch her every time she'd walk by. So, I'm sitting by the "road" talking and she passes by. I see her and my mouth lets out a "Oh!" sound. She turns her head. Recognizes me right away, even after a 2 year absence and a giant beard missing. I start running after her. She's laughing so hard she can't pedal anymore. Such a good moment.

The next 2 days were spent getting acclimated - meaning napping all day - and just going around saying hi to all the residents of this amazing island. They don't remember who I am usually, but after I explain that I shaved or show them a picture of last time, their face lightens up and we share an immense smile.

Papao, another of the neighbor's kids, the one who isn't afraid of anything and has a kind of crazy strut and look in his eye, can't remember me. "Pei, tell him I'm the one that used to throw him so hard into the river". She translates. His eyes and smile become enormous, he throws himself in my arms.

There was Sun's 1st birthday party. Adam's boy. Adam is married to Pei. They live behind Ken's house. We're sitting in One More Bar chatting when the father of the family quietly struts by. Tells Ken, without ever slowing down or even looking at him, "We're having beer". Ken laughs. It's inevitable, everyone's getting hammered tonight.

Driving at night to a Lao party in a rice field on Ken's battered scooter. Suddenly, in the middle of the road, a snake about 5 feet long. Black with yellow stripes. Good girth too. I call him Lucic. "Woooooiiiii!" Ken goes and avoids the snake (his brakes are out). "Fuck, Etienne, I lose my mind I so scared. This snake, number 1 danger in Lao. He bite, you die in minute". Quite the adrenaline rush.

A few days later, we're all sharing beers. Rachid tells me, he had the scare of his life, he was walking in the dark, quite high, and almost stepped on this black and yellow snake. But it was dead. Ken is laughing so hard. His new friend and ultimate badass, Sit, had crossed the snake one night and killed it. He doesn't even remember how, he says, it was just instincts. As a joke, he lay the snake in the middle of the road to scare people.

There's a few differences on the island since the last time. I'm here during low season, it's much more quiet. We still get rain almost every day. I guess as a direct result, I see more wildlife. I've seen about 6 snakes in 2 weeks, last time in 3 months I saw only one. More locals and ex-pats talk to me, I guess because I've returned, shown my interest in the place. I've even let the word out that I'm looking to settle down here one day to see what happens. Result: "Eh-Tee-Enn! I speak with my friend. He has daughter. If you have money, you can marry her no problem!" "Is she pretty?" "I didn't see".

In a place with not much to do and small population, gossip is an important activity. You have to be careful. Anything you say will travel. You can lose face that way. Or make new friends.

I've picked up a few more words and am starting to be able to create sentences. I've realized that every single time you go walking, people ask you where you're going. Pai Sai? Go where? You don't even have to reply, it's just a way to start the conversation. Most people just point ahead with their chin and smile. When you walk back, they ask you where you were. Every. Single. Time.

I don't know how to describe Don Det. How about, a place where you go to rent a bungalow for one day, help the family write a sign down for their restaurant. All of a sudden, you're part of the crew. You get to eat Pho for free. You get to sit down with them on the floor and watch Thai tv, drinking beer with Papa or cuddle with the daughter, depending on your sex. Next thing you know, your visa is running out. It's been a month.

A place where hammocks are only outnumbered by smiles, where locals and foreigners mingle naturally, where time is quietly napping in the shade and no one will wake it up.

I love you, Don Det.