My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.
The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.
I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.
I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.
This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)
Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:
I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.
Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.
I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”
I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.
Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.
“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.
I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”
We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.
But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.
“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.