*How to eat snails. Plus, what you miss by sleeping in*
17.01.2012 - 19.01.2012 21 °C
I would love to be able to say that I drove a motorbike around Southern Laos without mishap. If there were to be a mishap, I would like to be able to say I was not at fault and that it was due to circumstances beyond my control. If I were to be in any way responsible for any kind of mishap, I would hope I had a good rationale to justify my decisions... Alas, as it is, I went too fast over a too-rickety bridge, my favorite light blue shirt is ripped, my arm is bruised my favorite shade of dark blue, and all I can say is, “I knew better.”
I have no light blue thread, so instead I select light pink. As I sit in the open air lobby of my guesthouse sewing my shirt, an adorable little girl comes and sits beside me. I take out some colorful molding clay (just something I carry around, you know) and we start making things and trading the Lao and English words for fish, apple and the like.
I don’t know the Lao word for ‘live,’ so I ask her where she sleeps. She says, “here,” which I take to mean her parents run this guesthouse and she lives here. Presently, the man who showed me the room, her father, appears and says to us, “gin kow” - time to eat. He is inviting me to eat with them. I shyly say okay, thank you, and join them at a round stone table. His wife brings out a tray with several dishes and basket of sticky rice. “Ahahn Lao,” she says - Lao food. I nod and smile enthusiastically - yes I want to try Lao food!
The father’s name is Roiyan (pronounced roi-YAN). His wife is Maniyum (pronounced man-ee-YOOM). Their daughter is Tata (pronounced ta-TAH). Which makes sense when I recall that the lodge is named Tata Guesthouse - very sweet. This being my first Lao meal with Lao people, I wait to see how it works. Roiyan takes some sticky rice, balls it up in his fist, dips it into a main dish to soak up some broth, and pops it in his mouth. Maniyum spoons some food into Tata’s and then her own bowl. From this I gather that you can either dip sticky rice in the food, or spoon it into your bowl. Very well. Besides sticky rice there are three dishes: A salad of minced chicken, some hard-boiled eggs, and a bowl of… snails. They are in a dark, murky soup with some greens. I have never eaten snails before but - not about to insult my hosts’ hospitality - I follow their lead and sip a spoonful of the broth.
The first impression on the palate is that of river muck. On the second and third taste, I detect more salty and earthy notes to the flavor, and it begins to grow on me. Roiyan spoons a couple snails into his bowl, picks one up, puts it to his mouth, and sucks the snail out of its shell with two quick little slurps. I observe this, then try it myself. A full minute later I am still trying, generating all the suction I can muster, the muscles in my mouth are fatiguing, and the snail is not even close to coming loose. Who would have thought it was so difficult to eat snails? Meanwhile little Tata, who of course has no problem slurping her snails, brings me a toothpick. We all laugh as I concede defeat and manually extract the creature. I now have this gummy thing little grey on the point of my toothpick. Still unsure if I want to eat a snail, but feeling like I am committed now, I pop him (her?) into my mouth. The verdict: Not too slimy, and pleasantly chewy. No wonder the French like them. I bet I would enjoy escargots in garlic and butter even more. As we continue eating I periodically try sucking the snails out of their shell, but each time have to resort to the toothpick. Here is the family, Roiyan and Tata effortlessly eating snails.
Over dinner, we exchange English and Lao words. I am not shy to get out my notebook and write new words as I learn them. Tata also has a notebook for learning English in school, and I think her parents appreciate that I teach her some English. When we have all eaten our fill, Maniyum brings out a box of long, brown, hard-shelled fruits. Tamarind, or “makkham” in Lao. I have had tamarind-flavored sauces before, but never the fruit itself. Maniyum takes one, peels the crackly skin off the sticky fruit, and hands it to me. I take a bite. Sweet, a little tangy, and really delicious. This gives rise to my first proper, spontaneously uttered Lao sentence: “Khoy mak makkham” - I like tamarind.
I wake up around 9am the next morning. Roiyan is around so we sit at the table and chat, getting by on his partial English and my nascent Lao. I am wearing a tank top and have forgotten about the massive bruise on my arm until he points and inquires with concern if it hurts. “Noy neung,” I say - a little. He asks if I have put medicine on it. Assuming he means to ask if I have cleaned the minor abrasion, I say yes, I put alcohol. “No, no good enough,” he pronounces. He disappears behind a door, returns with a small tin of something that smells like Tiger Balm, and very gently applies it to my arm. I am touched. Literally and figuratively.
Roiyan asks me if I will leave today. Probably, I say. He encourages me to stay one more day. I say I’ll think it over, and head to the market for breakfast. I wander through, amazed as always at the variety of foods and random objects you find in Asian markets. I finally pick out a noodle stand with a central location, order a bowl of phoe, and just sit and watch. To my right, a woman squats by a pile of neatly folded siins (traditional Lao skirts) and bargains with her customers. In front of me are piles of various vegetables, their proprietors weighing and selling when customers appear and otherwise talking with their neighbors or just sitting quietly. The aisle has a constant stream of people of all ages, all of them Lao – I am the only white face. I watch their eyes, hair, clothing and affect as they pass, and they regard me with equal curiosity. Some smile, others look away, and the children tend to just stare. I take my time over the phoe; it is a good prop for my real mission, which to sit here and observe. I try to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the place, feeling like I am peering through a hole at a different planet. At some point the thought strikes me: “These people, everyone making up this exotic and fascinating picture around me … They are here every day, shopping and selling, then they go home and make food for their families… This is their daily life I am voyeuristically watching, not some movie set erected for my entertainment.”
I am starting to suspect that Laos rewards the patient traveler, that the simple act of waiting and watching can lead you to interesting experiences. I will stick around Salavan one more day and see what happens. This afternoon I decide to head for a weaving village called Toumlon that looks to be reasonable driving distance. Key fact about road travel in Laos: Distance is not the whole story. The map is really, really not the terrain.
First I reach a section of highway that is being resurfaced. They have placed large tree trunks clear across the road, even some sections that look perfectly intact to me. The road is somewhat elevated, and by these blocked off sections are tire tracks leading down to a gravel/dirt detour alongside the paved road. The slope down to the side road is way too steep for my comfort, but since all the other cars and bikes are managing, I hold my breath and go for it. I make it down in one piece. On the way back up, I have to put the bike in first gear and help it along with my feet. This repeats several times bypassing several segments of roadwork. I finally reach the turn-off leading to Toumlon and heave a sigh of relief, thank goodness I’m done with the on-again-off-again road for now.
The road to Toumlon soon becomes dirt. A very rough dirt road. I bump slowly along for half an hour, the only other occasional vehicles I see are trucks and tractors. Finally, I reach what looks like an X-games motocross adventure course. There is a steep slope down to a nearly dry riverbed littered with large rocks. I am fairly certain that even if I were to make it down without breaking the bike or myself, there is no way I would get back up. Not looking to have two motorcycle accidents in two days, reasoning that I have already seen a weaving village, and figuring God gave me a brain so I could God-forbid use it once in a while, I make an about face.
I go back along the bumpy dirt road, back along the on-again-off-again highway, and begin to relax my shoulders only once I regain the highway leading back to Salavan. I am once again passing lots of intriguing paths leading off into the forest. With plenty of time to spare until evening, I pull over, park the bike in a small clearing, and start walking. The path looks like it used to handle 4WD vehicles but in recent years has not been maintained, perhaps only for foot traffic. With golden afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees, this could be a trail in any national park. I wonder who uses it now and for what. When I stop walking, in the absence of my own footsteps it is eerily quiet. After about half an hour, I sit down in the middle of the trail to listen to the forest, watch the spiders and ants, and study some Lao (I always have my notebook handy and am adding words and studying daily).
I get back to Tata Guesthouse as night is falling. Instead of going into my room and closing the door, I sit down in the lobby to read, then make some more clay animals with Tata. Presently, just as I was hoping, I am invited to eat with the family again. The menu is abut the same as yesterday. Roiyan shows me again how to eat the snails, just those two quick slurps. It looks so very easy. I try again hoping for better luck tonight, but am unsuccessful. Still, I attempt to suck out each snail the Lao way before resorting to the toothpick. On the fourth snail, I accidentally do something different and feel the meat of the snail flicker out and touch the tip of my tongue. So there IS a trick! I experiment with my inadvertent innovation. Turns out you have to kind of roll your tongue, partially cover the opening of the spiral shell, then vacuum. Closer, closer, this feels like it may work… All at once, like magic, the animal is shoots out of its shell, and with a slurp-pop and I have him in my mouth. “I did it!” I cry in my excitement, holding aloft the empty shell. We all laugh, then document the occasion with a couple more photos.
Meanwhile I am now managing pidgin sentences in Lao, making possible the following negotiation. Maniyum goes to the market every morning to makes papaya salad, and I ask if I can go with her tomorrow. She says yes. I ask what time she will leave. Six in the morning. I have gotten in the habit of sleeping until I feel like getting up, usually around 9am, but the prospect of visiting the market with a local as opposed being a total outsider is sufficient motivation for an early rising. I say thank you, dinner was very tasty, see you at six tomorrow morning!
Mornings at Tata Guesthouse: What you miss by sleeping in
I have begun to suspect that a lot goes on in Laos while I am still snoozing. To my detriment I have been too lazy to seek out what I may be missing. Today, though, my alarm goes off at 5:45am. I instantly regret committing to an early morning showing. Bleary-eyed, I dress and wander out to the stone table shortly before six. It is still dark.
Roiyan appears and tells me, maybe-I-think, that he is making rice. Whenever I do not understand something said in Lao, my first hope is that the speaker will simply show me to whatever they are talking about. Sure enough, Roiyan leads me through the family’s living quarters and out to the backyard where a woven basket sits steaming atop a charcoal fire. He lifts the lid for me to see that beneath the billowing steam is khow neow, sticky rice. He takes three small handfuls of the khow neow, forms them into three little balls and places them on a leaf. This he places, along with a candle, some incense and a bottle of water, at the base of a tamarind tree. He lights the incense and says a quick prayer. The family’s living area has an altar, a shelf secured to the wall about eight feet off the ground. Using a stepladder to reach, Roiyan repeats the offering on this altar.
Next, Tata runs out into the yard stark naked. She sees catches sight of me and smiles as she skitters over to a large water drum where she scoops up some water in the plastic bowl, takes a sip, then gives herself a little shower. My room has a telephone style shower with a heater so I can take hot showers, but of course the family does not live like that; most people in Laos wash themselves with a bowl and a basin. I am fascinated by everything I am seeing, but wonder if I am intruding. No one seems to be uncomfortable with my presence, so I decide to just be a fly on the wall. Maniyum now appears in her night clothes, goes over to a little cooking area (the “kitchens” here are hardly recognizable as such to the Western eye), and spoons some cooked vegetables into a plastic bag, which Roiyan takes from her with a nod and a smile. This he brings out front along with the basket of sticky rice and a bottle of water. I follow him out to the road. Now he is trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand. He pantomimes carrying an object at hip level with both hands. From his and Tata’s faces I can tell this is something quite obvious to them, that I should really know what they are saying, but I cannot get it. Once again, I use the wait-and-see strategy. Presently, ten saffron-clad monks file down the street, each one carrying at hip level a large beaten metal bowl. So that’s it – monks. Head bowed respectfully, Roiyan places a handful of sticky rice into each monk’s pot. The last monk takes the bottle of water and slowly pours it out, all the monks singing a chant as the stream splatters on the ground.
It is 7am. Time to go to the market. Maniyum and Tata get on her bike, I follow them on mine. We drive ten minute to her stall, which seems to be shared with another business which sells khow neow (sticky rice) baskets and assorted furniture. Maniyum begins sweeping the area (though to be honest, everything in Laos is so perpetually dusty I am amazed that people bother sweeping every day). Tata helps wipe down the tables. Maniyum now assembles her ingredients and starts throwing things into a mortar and pestle. First she puts several chilies, adds some sugar and spices, then grinds. Next come a couple small tomatoes, a handful of shredded papaya, a quick pour of some mystery liquid, and another round of mixing. She puts the results it in a bowl and presents it to me with a basket of sticky rice. Ah, sticky rice. Tasty and filling, it appears to be ubiquitous in Laos, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m pretty sure it is the nutritional equivalent of having about six bagels with your meal, by the way, but I don’t much care.
The papaya salad is spicy and tangy, and the sticky rice is perfect for soaking up the juice. Tata and I eat while Maniyum chats with her neighbor. And I chat with them - I am able to communicate that I am heading for a town called Sekong today, and one further south called Attapeu tomorrow. They are impressed with my Lao, especially when I tell them I have been studying for all of five days. Then they go back to talking rapidly with each other, but to my delight, I understand when Maneeyoom tells her friend that I “pasaa gang Lao, gin gang hoie” – I speak Lao well and eat snails well. I swell with pride on both counts.
Before I leave, Maniyum presses some more tamarind into my hand. She refuses to let me pay for the papaya salad, or for that matter my dinner the last two nights. I am sad to go. I want to tell Roiyan and Maniyum what kind and special people they are, to thank them for letting me into their lives. I want to see what Tata will look like in five or ten years, want her to come visit me in the US someday and I will help her more with English. Instead, it is all just smiles and hugs.