Monthly Archives: September 2012

Trekking with Vong

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We spent a week in Luang Prabang — eating some seriously legit bagel-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, lounging at riverside bars, nervously approaching monks with my camera (me) and drafting fantasy football players (not me) — before we put our crusty boots back on and headed out into the jungle again.  Pictured above is our guide Vong, a 23-year-old Hmong guy who took us up the mountain to stay in his family’s village.  We slept at the house of his uncle’s second wife, interestingly enough.  Hmong polygamy!  Who knew?  Not I.

Vong was a capable but somewhat annoying guide, mainly because of his two catchphrases, which were:

1. “Be careful!”

I feel like Ryan and I will be saying this to each other, in our best Vong voices, for many years to come.  Mostly because Vong — poor, sweet, well-meaning Vong who I am just throwing under a bus here but whatever — sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd.  Be vewwy, vewwy careful!*

Vong was very fond of this phrase.  Trekking in Laos in the rainy season is a muddy affair, and every time we came to a particularly slippery incline (which was every five minutes) he would cheerfully call out, “Be careful!”  And when Ryan and I would, inevitably, eat it, Vong  would knit his brows and say, “Oooooooh.  Sorry.”  Then, brightening: “Be careful!”

“Okay, Vong,” we’d mutter, wiping our hands on the nearest tree.

* Can you figure out how to write “careful” in an Elmer Fudd voice?  I tried for about ten minutes but came up empty-handed.

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2.  “Poor people”

We were about five minutes into the trek when Vong started talking about his favorite subject: money.  First up was a story about how, when he was a high school student, he fell madly in love with a 19-year-old Hmong-American girl who came to visit Laos with her parents.  He ditched school and they spent one glorious week together, motorbiking around the countryside and etc; alas, it was not to be, as her striving, upwardly-mobile parents didn’t like the idea of their daughter starting a relationship with some dropout from the sticks.  Just in case we didn’t understand why, exactly, they would disapprove of him, he drove the point home (“They think: Our daughter must marry an American.  A rich man.  But I am a poor, poor boy!  So she cannot marry me.  I have no money.  They don’t like this”).

Next up was a morality tale about a recently-married Lao couple (“very poor”).  As the story goes, the husband coerces his beautiful wife into posting her photos online (“because they have no money”).  Soon enough, an American man (“very rich”) starts writing her, and over the course of several months he sends lots of money, which the husband uses to buy a new house and a car.  The American eventually starts asking when he can visit; the husband tells his long-suffering wife that she will meet the American at the airport and take him back to a hotel, where the husband will be waiting to rob him for even more money.  The wife dutifully goes to the airport, but — what’s this? — the American turns out to be a very young, handsome man.  And so the two of them fall in love and run away to America together, leaving the conniving husband behind (“He is so sad after that.  And: he has no more money”).

Then there was the part when Vong took us on a walk around his village, pointing out things of interest — which, to him, mostly consisted of explaining which families were receiving remittances from relatives in the states, and which weren’t.  “They get money from America,” he would say, pointing.  “Two thousand dollars.  Now they have a new house!  They are rich.”

(a pause;  he considers the next homestead; we feel it coming and brace for it)

“But they are poor, poor people.”

So by the time Vong launched into what seemed like a well-rehearsed speech about how we, as rich foreigners, may have been feeling quite surprised indeed upon seeing way people live in the mountains of  Laos (“Maybe you think people live a different way!  Maybe you think they live like you!  But no!  They do not. They are very, very poor people”), we were obviously ready to set him, and ourselves, on fire.

Of course, we can’t really blame him for any of this. Vong is definitely a bit of a doink, but he probably doesn’t have any idea how uncomfortable Westerners are with direct, unvarnished talk of money and class (especially when that talk is coming from a self-proclaimed poor person).  If we were better people we would have tried to explain to him how we felt, although I can just imagine how this imaginary feedback session would have gone.  There we’d sit, wringing our hands, our mouths pulled back in desperate, grinning rictuses of embarrassment:

“You see, Vong,” we’d begin, “you talked a lot about…about money on this trip, and, ah, people from the USA don’t really like to…to talk about…ah…”

“…Poor people?” he’d ask.

“YES, YES, POOR PEOPLE, AUGH,” we’d scream, clawing at our ears.

But instead, at the end of the trek, we just gave him a tip and fled.  And now I’m making fun of him on my blog!  And aren’t I ashamed.

Well.  Despite my pretty complaints, Vong still showed us a real good time:

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These shots are from the Khmu village we passed through on the first day.  This guy may look stern, but he was jolly indeed when he waved over our little group and insisted we have some of the whiskey out of that jug.

We had another of those weird moments in this village, those “ah yes I can feel how Peace Corps has changed my reaction to this situation” moments.  During our walk, Vong pointed up the hill and said, “There’s the school.  Let’s go have a look.”

“But…aren’t they in the middle of their lessons?” we asked, getting closer to the little two-room schoolhouse.  “Aren’t we going to interrupt?”

Then we strolled up.  The two teachers, smiling, one with her baby on her hip, came out to say hello and chat with Vong.    Some kids watched and giggled from the doorways, some kids stayed at their desks and worked, some kids goofed around in the back of the classrooms, and nobody was even a little perturbed by our unannounced visit.  And then we were like: Oh right.  Classroom culture in the U.S. ≠ Classroom culture elsewhere.
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Once we got to our homestay village, we sat in front of our host’s house, ate cucumbers, and watched a large group of unsupervised children amuse themselves by playing with fire in the street.  The boys hacked up kindling with gigantic butcher knives while the girls used a discarded can to cook some kind of hobo soup consisting of flowers and twigs.  After a while, Grandma came out and distributed big sticks of sugarcane to everybody, including us.  It was all pretty heartwarming, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.

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And once it got dark, we all went inside to let the baby play with Ryan’s beard.

All in all, a good trek indeed!  Thanks, Vong.  We shall think of you whenever we fall on our asses in the mud.

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Kao tai hoop day

Greetings!  The title  of this post is a very rough transliteration of the question “may I take your photo?” in Lao.  By “very rough” I mean Ryan asked One, our Luang Namtha guide, to say it a few times, and then he wrote down what he heard. I tried to find a version of this phrase online, but a solid ten minutes of Googling didn’t turn up anything.  Does this say something about how often falangs bother to ask Lao people for permission to take a photo?  Is this blog post going to once again involve me complaining about the behavior of other tourists, while simultaneously revealing myself to be a hypocrite who indulges in the exact same behavior? Do Asiatic black bears shit in the jungle?

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They sure do!

So I’ve been repeating myself a lot in these here travel posts, and here I go again: I’ve been trying to embrace a relaxed photo-taking philosophy on this trip.  Something along the lines of, “I’ll get what I get, and they won’t be the best shots in the world but they’ll be mine and that’s good enough, and whatever.”

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good enough

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good enough

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PUPPY

All the previous photos were taken in Huay Xai, a little town on the Thai border where we hung out for a couple days.  From there, we signed up for a two-day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, in a longboat that seated a few dozen people.  Most of the passengers were tourists, but there were enough locals along for the ride that the boat made plenty of stops at riverbank villages to let things on and off: People, goods, giant gasping catfish, et cetera.

At all of these stops, our boat would ease up next to a muddy bank, where local people – mostly kids – had gathered to swim, see their relatives off, and check out the boat traffic.  And at all of these stops, the tourist passengers would whip out their dinky off-brand prosumer DSLRs,* lean as far as they could over the boat railing, zoom in, and snap snap snap away.  Not looking people in the face, before or after; just squinting into the viewfinder, taking the shot, then immediately peering down at their screens, to evaluate the prize.   It was like a hit and run: The boat docks for only a minute or so, so you get to be as aggressive as you want with your camera and then, just as it’s getting hard to avoid eye contact with your subjects (who are staring at you), just as you’re really starting to ask yourself ‘am I…the king of the dicks?’ the boat launches itself down the river again, and you are swept away, absolved.

But obviously I AM REALLY ONE TO TALK.

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The ride I just described reminded me of a Cambodian river trip we took from Siem Reap to Battnambang six years ago.  I took the three photos above, plus dozens and dozens more, on that trip.  The insensitive tourists I’m bitching about, with their sub-par equipment and their overzealous photo-taking and their willful lack of regard for their subjects’ feelings: I was them.  I am still kind of them.  I judge me!  I JUDGE ME OKAY.

And did I refrain from the same kind of manic, antisocial behavior on this trip because of some kind of newfound piety, or was it just because I didn’t have a zoom lens on me?

Well anyway.  This is what the Huay Xai – Luang Prabang boat ride looked like to me.  Señor Short Shorts with his Sony Shit Whatever may have gotten better photos than me, but these are mine, and I am like 80% sure I didn’t alienate anybody getting them, and that’s good enough, and whatever.

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* “Dinky off-brand prosumer DSLR” is a dick thing to say, but I mean, if you insist on a)  taking out said camera at every fucking opportunity like your livelihood depends on it, and b) using the strap that came with your kit – the one with the make and model embroidered in bright yellow thread all up and down for everyone to see – then I reserve the right  to sit here like Dr. Evil, lovingly stroking the full-frame Nikon in my lap, judging you

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Then we got to Luang Prabang: Land of temples, UNESCO-listed French colonial architecture, and monks.  Monks everywhere!  Monks going here, monks going there, monks with their color-coordinated umbrellas and bags, kid monks, teenage monks, all monks all the time.  Because there are so many monks in such a small, quaint space, the dawn alms procession is, like, a thing, a must-see thing in Luang Prabang, but it’s still a religious ceremony, so you’re supposed to watch very quietly and from a distance.  So for our first night there, much to Ryan’s chagrin,* I booked us at a kind-of-pricey boutique hotel because I knew we would have a good view of the procession the next morning.  “Well I hope this is worth it to you” he muttered after we checked in, our budget blown to smithereens for the day.

It was!

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*[Ryan says he was only negligibly chagrined, jeez — Ed.]

It was worth it to be able to roll out of bed and watch the procession on the balcony, in our pajamas.  It was also worth it to be able to take a couple photos from what I hope was a respectful enough distance.  And sure enough, even though there are signs posted on the street begging people not to act like idiots during this silent,  holy ceremony that represents thousands of years of living culture, we saw a couple tourist guys down on the street, shoving their cameras right in the monks’ faces.  Now I enjoy being given an opportunity to judge other people (surprise!) especially when it makes me look like a saint in comparison (surprise again!) but I didn’t get any pleasure from watching these men; it was just kind of sad and horrifying, the way they were behaving.  Ryan and I considered sending silent messages to them somehow – maybe pelting them with wadded-up papers that would open to read “YOU ARE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST DOUCHEBAG.”

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But other than that it was a mesmerizing thing to watch, this endless line of boys receiving their daily sticky rice.  What I’ll remember is how, in the quiet of the ceremony, the loudest sound was the shuffling of their feet.

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So, for the next couple of days, we bummed around.  I tried to be happy with the photos I was getting but I wasn’t really, because there were no people in them, specifically no people with shaved heads and orange robes.  I guess I should add here that Laos is usually way too quiet for me to get away with any shooting from the hip, which is my favored slimeball way of taking candid photos (but if I COULD get away with it, would I try? Even on the monks, or on traditionally-dressed hilltribe women, or on any other population that is already besieged by falangs and their cameras?  Or does that even matter, is there some kind of spectrum of Acceptable People To Steal Photos Of, with “Lao Monks Already Wearied By Aggressive Picture-Taking Tourists” on one end and “Regular Beijingers Going About Their Day” on the other?  I guess I’m also making a distinction between stealing a candid photo – when you can be reasonably sure that your subject will not notice you – and stealing a portrait, where you just point your camera right at people on the street and don’t give a flying fuck that they can see you.  Whether or not people are aware that you’re taking their photo without their permission is obviously a very small moral distinction but I think it matters and OH GOD I AM TIRED OF THIS are you? ).

So I gave myself a goal: Before our time in Luang Prabang was up I had to ask five monks if I could take their picture.  And maybe they would all say no, but even if they did, at least I would have tried.  At least I would have asked.

But what do you know?  They all said yes.

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He doesn’t really look like it, but this guy was super smiley and friendly. His wat was interesting – there were monks AND nuns, and they all wore white instead of orange – but I couldn’t ask him about it, since he didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Lao, except of course for the question that got me this photo.

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This kid said yes, but by the look on his face I kind of wish he’d said no. Sorry, buddy!

These next three teenagers, god bless ‘em, all made the first move: They struck up conversations with me because they wanted to practice their English.  I think it’s worth noting that these conversations happened when I was wandering around by myself, with my biggest, dopiest, “oh boy look at this beautiful wat I sure am a very non-threatening kind of lady” smile on my face.

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I forget this guy’s name. We chatted about the province he’s from, and how long he plans to be a monk. When I asked him what his favorite Lao food is, he said, “Everything.” I said, “Really? Everything? Come on.” And he said, “Yes, because I take what people give me, and I am happy with that.”

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And these two were delightful. Look at those smiles.  They said they like to hang out where they do — next to a little cave that claims to have an imprint of the Buddha’s foot inside —  so they can catch the tourists that walk by.

“You guys must have a lot of foreigners take your photo,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sing, the guy on the right, “but I don’t mind. Americans are the most polite, I think.”

“Oh really?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “They always ask.”

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