Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Laos impressions

Fetal pigs for sale in Luang Prabang

A cycling trip... but the focus wasn't on the bike. The riding was more about working through my head cold on insufficient food. A physical challenge. But the memories are of impressions. Encounters. Sights and sounds. For example, humans and animals.

Pakbeng...Ban Faen...Udonzai...Pak Mong...: chickens, pigs, wander freely onto the road, from house to house, wherever they wish. I ask our guide Ken: how do the owners keep track of which are which? They know, he said. And anyway the chickens know where their home is: they come back there each night to eat and sleep. "And eventually to die," I think as he says this. Chickens everywhere. In the US, it's a rare thing to get away from the sound of cars. In rural Laos, welcome relief from the ubiquitous sound of engines, but the sound of roosters is everywhere. Which would I prefer had I been raised among the chickens?

Ban Faen: a very special dinner with the village elders. Lao Lao (rice whiskey) all around. Food is served. A pig's hoof floats in the soup. I'm vegetarian, yet I at least taste the broth. So much more honest, I think. So much more responsible, respectful of the pig, that everything is used, everything is eaten, even the hooves. In the US, people eat pork, not pigs. In Laos, people eat pigs. Hypocracy helps drive so many people to be vegetarian in the US. It goes beyond food: religion, as well, or holidays. It's Christmas eve this night, which most of us would prefer to forget.

Leaving Kiu Kachan on the road to Vientiane... Chinese Tour buses and cargo trucks speed down the center of the narrow road, barely reducing their speed as they roar through small villages with children, chickens, pigs, cows, dogs, and cats. How are there no collisions?

Riding into Luang Prabang, I hear wimpering ahead. Traffic is parting around a dog. This doesn't look good. Then I see it clearly. A severed dog leg lies nearby, the dog's stump with dangling flesh and exposed bone. Yet little blood. What should I do? The dog needs to move, but it's highly distressed, and may well attack if I approach. But then the he gathers himself and hops off the road on its three remaining legs. From behind me, someone laughs. I am appalled. But that response is based on a sheltered life. I don't directly deal with death on anything larger than a bug. These people have seen it virtually daily their whole lives. What is it that a dog lost its legs? Stupid dog. Yet I am still appalled.

Running out of Tha Heua while waiting for slower riders to arrive to the rest stop. I pass a cow laying on the side of the road. A board is held over the cow, on which two men lay, immobilizing it. Blood flows into a bucket from a large hole in the cow's neck. I've read of cows being "milked" by Hindus in India. This cow is not being so sustained: this will be its only "milking". I avoid staring: what right to I have to stare, with its implied judgments? I continue running, shaken. But I'm not upset. Factory farming upsets me, not this.

Beyond Laos: a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Eels swim in a bowl. One escapes onto the floor, but a child deftly scoops it up with a small dish and returns it to the bowl. A woman squats next to a cutting board and a bloody cleaver behind the bowl, waiting for customers. I saw a similar scene in De Lat in 2005. At a nearby stall, inverted turtles struggle to regain their feet. Life and death everywhere.

So many more impressions, so many scenes: I've already described too many. The reality was refreshing. This is not what is destroying the Earth.

Riding to Angkor Wat

No comments: