Stories from Laos

1. Show me a wallet or loose your pants
2. Over the river and through the woods
3. Rat traps
4. Sleeping on the floor
5. Buffalo Bill
6. Twins
7. 7 years, 7 months, 7 days and 7 nights
8. Bedtime stories

If something happened and I had to leave Laos tomorrow, what I would miss most about my experience so far is the always-interesting stories I hear from the people I work with.  Some are funny, some are just interesting, some are sad.  I thought I’d share a few of the more stand-out ones with you.

1.  Show me a wallet or loose your pants

It was payday.  The first of what I hope to be many days where my efforts are monetarily rewarded.  I had gotten paid in cash and this presented me with a dilemma. My little coin purse was simply not large enough, I didn’t carry a purse, and my pockets weren’t gonna do the trick.  I’m always encouraged by my boss when I need to buy something that I should check the museum shop first.  It is, after all for a good cause.  So I headed back through the exhibit space to the shop—a 30 second walk that I’ve grown used to making numerous times a day (the bathroom is in the shop and the café is just off of it).  I told my coworker that I was looking for something to put money in.  Quite the clever young man, he is.  I see him pulling open his pant pocket as a sort of invitation that my money could find a home there.  “I know where you can put your money.” He responded.  Amused, I laughed and answered, “Unless you want to go home to your wife with no pants on, please show me a wallet.”  And like that he became very obliging.


2. Over the river and through the woods

One of the staff, a rather smiley guy—not THE smiley guy, but even still, a guy with a face that works overtime to accommodate such a wide, all encompassing smile—came in with new shoes.  I don’t know why, but I always notice the staff’s shoes.  This day he was wearing brown Puma’s that look like nearly every pair of shoes that I bought between 2005 to 2010. I told him that I liked his shoes and he said he felt they were too large (wrong size?) and that he felt like a cartoon character wearing them.  He went on to explain that he preferred sandals or slippers because they were easier to wear home.  Not an obvious connection, I know.  He didn’t mean at home.  He meant to home.  He said he has to cross the Mekong and several other rivers to get to his hometown. “You cross the Mekong on foot?!” I asked.  He explained that although he took a long boat across the Mekong, there were still several other rivers he had to cross on foot to get home and that having enclosed shoes made the experience rather uncomfortable.

3. Rat traps

Since the content of the museum is still new to me, I sometimes take advantage of the guided tours we give and tag along to listen to the staff.  I was observing the original smiley guy (hereafter referred to as Index Smiley, or I. Smiley for short) go through each exhibit adding his own personal stories and jokes.  It was really quite interesting to hear from his perspective.  I. Smiley is just full of great stories, many of which I hope to share but will fast forward through now to bring you to the foreign object in the basket weaving display.  After explaining most of the other objects and their purposes in that part of the museum, he posed a question to the entire group.  “Do any of you know what this is?”  Silence. “A rat trap.”  As he tells the story, after harvesting the rice it gets brought inside and stored in these bins on the floor.  Rats like to get into the rice so farmers will put rat traps around the perimeter of the room. So far, so good, right?  Then he adds, he loves it when they catch them, because “rats are so delicious.”  More silence. Only this time it’s of the awkward variety with some added “WTW” (what the whaaaaat?!) glances exchanged among tourists.

4. Sleeping on the Floor

What some people have to do to make a living here makes me realize hard work is something I have very little personal experience with.

Shortly after I moved here I asked I. Smiley why he liked working at the museum.  He went through several reasons before he got to one I found I most wanted to know more about.  He said that he could see his wife and kids once a week with this job whereas his old job he had only been able to see his family once a month. The question that came most naturally to me next was, “So you have a house here in LP?” He doesn’t.

In his previous job he spent a year or so living on his friends boat.  Now, he works at the museum 8:30am  to 6pm. Then he works at a guesthouse from 6:30pm to 8am. (I pass this guesthouse on my way home from work now, so I often stop in and chat with him.  Tonight I stopped in and he and another of our coworkers were watching female WWF fighting and I laughed that guys all over the world are the same.  He and I also swapped MP3 players for a couple songs…anyways, I digress, back to the story).  I asked him if he had a room in the guesthouse.  He does not.  He sleeps on the floor.  Once I went to visit, the first time actually that I discovered he worked there, he pulled out his mosquito net and showed me how he placed it in front of the front desk and slept right there.

He accompanied me once to view a house I was looking at, the 5 bedroom one.  You should have seen him relaxing into the leather sofa cushions in the furnished living room and speaking wistfully about how great it would be if he could one day have a house in LP where his whole family could live and he could see them every day.

5. Buffalo Bill

“What is the price for a bride in your country?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like a dowry.”

This is how the conversation about weddings began with one of my coworkers (the guy who took me on his moped before I figured out the no touching rule, same guy from the pants story above).  I turned the question around and asked what the price was in his country.  Of course, it depends on the family’s circumstances, but a Buffalo at least.  And for the wedding you might need two Buffalo.  Its hard to say since invitations get sent out a few days before…to normally between 400 and 800 people…with the expectation that 2 people will show up per invitation.  I don’t know if that means that you altogether need three Buffalo, or if the one Buffalo gets billed as the bride price then gets butchered for the after party.

6.  Twins

My staff is always a great resource for me as I’m learning more about different ethnic groups and their traditions.  “Tell me something interesting about…” Is a pretty normal conversation starter for me.  But one time, I got a very surprising answer.

There is a ethnic group that previously, if a woman gave birth to twins, would kill them both because she thought it was bad luck.

7. 7 years, 7 months, 7 days and 7 nights

Wouldn’t. Be. Me. S’all I’m sayin’. 

There is an ethnic group who believes that after a couple gets married they have to wait 7 years, 7 months, 7 days and 7 nights before they can sleep with each other. (Does that mean they go at it like crazy before marriage??)  During this time, the man is permitted to sleep with other women.  Recently, this custom has changed.  Now they have to wait 1 year, 1 month, 1 day and 1 night.  And the man still gets to sleep around.

8. Bedtime stories

Today I had the privilege of visiting a farm where a workshop was being held for select local Lao service and hospitality workers to teach them different cognitive skills.  I met many new people and asked one of them why he liked working for his organization. They travel around the country introducing books into schools and teaching teachers how to use them in class.  He used to be a monk (which is common, I work with a few guys who used to be monks) and said that while he was in the temple he encountered many foreigners and he noticed two things about them.  They always, no matter where they were from, carried a camera and a book.  He had never seen a Lao person carrying a book before and became really curious about it.  Now he reads a lot and shares books with many children and adults throughout the country.

He told me that his nieces and nephews now love it when he reads to them.  He will start reading a book to them before bed and stop just before it gets good.  In the morning, he’s awakened by their little-kid knocks on the door and their requests for him to finish reading the book.  He told me that if he doesn’t or even jokes that he won’t the kids start crying.

The organization he works for doesn’t just train teachers and introduce books into schools, they publish and write books, too!

I asked him if he was ever read to as a child.  He said no.  There were no books in the house to read, just the newspaper.

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