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General Living

It’s a clean and fresh afternoon, the morning torrent having cleared away the stifling heat and humidity, and I once again find myself in an imagination transportation creation. This time it’s a bench installed lengthwise in a pick-up style cab being pulled by a motorcycle - perfectly practical but horribly unsafe, considering the roads and traffic habits in Laos. The vehicle is decorated like a parade float: smothered in bright blue, red, yellow, pink and green paint and covered in stickers and flowers and religious icons. We travel through the dust of Southern Laos, bounced around on the colorful bench of the imagination transportation creation, rumbling past soaking wet boys running furiously across a bridge over the river Mekong. A bus approaches us quickly, looking as if it will attack. It swerves casually into the other lane at the last possible moment and passes without incident.

Ban Sapphai is a dusty village punctuated by liberal quantities of strewn garbage and rotting muddy vegetables covering the market floor. I wander through the market, surprised by the lack of fresh produce, and lose my flip-flop in a mound of wet gravel. Open stilt houses with no solid or continuous walls encircle the village and display immense foot looms with half finished blue, silver, green and gold fabric dripping nonchalantly from their grips. These sparkling waterfalls are all over the village. Babies carry babies with curly black hair and smile in a way that warms me to the core, giggling at the foreigner and enthusiastically shouting the friendly Laotian greeting, “sabbadii”!

I jump into a motorized dugout canoe and struggle against the current of the Mekong, arriving minutes later on a bright green island of dilapidated alters and pointy graves, lush rice paddies and more massive foot looms. As soon as I arrive, a woman with a plastic bag full of homemade handmade silk approaches me. I am immediately enamored - captivated by the shiny hand-made fabrics that cover this Mekong jewel.

The next day I head east to continue my hunt for textiles, leaving Pakse on an 8 am bus. The bus is a vibrant affair, with color adorning every possible surface, suffocating the encroaching rust and cracks with the pure joy of gaudy color. It is packed with rice and boxes and bags and people, and for the first few hours I sit on a bag of rice in the isle. We drive for 3 hours through the lowlands before edging up a hill and on to the Bolaven plateau, one of the richest coffee growing regions in the world. The scenery is spectacular – lush greenery shrouded in mist - and it’s noticeably cooler here.

Hours later, after seemingly endless roadside stops for roasted crickets and cokes, we rumble into Sekong town, the capital of one of the poorest and most heavily bombed provinces in the country. The bus drops me at the side of the road at the edge of a universe I have no map for. I wander through the misty town until a truckload of soldiers point me in the direction of a guesthouse.

I drop off my bag and set out in search of weavings, wandering through a town of curious stares to the bank and a restaurant. The Laotian currency is so devalued that changing twenty or thirty American dollars results in stacks of Kip. I shove my stack into a plastic bag and find a restaurant for lunch - eggs with fresh mint, lime and a mountain of green vegetables. After lunch I wander across the street to the supposedly haunted Sekong Hotel, interrupting three or four men and a woman playing cards in a room off the lobby. The woman rises and the men continue, un-phased by the visitor. She leads me up the stairs to a dusty fluorescent-lit room filled with makeshift piles of old weavings and blankets. Brushing off the cobwebs, I find what I’m here for: war weavings. Textiles with images of bombs, helicopters, planes and hospital crosses instead of the traditional motifs of scorpions and elephants. Six American dollars for a piece of history - weavings that tell the stories of the bombs, the planes and the war that most people don’t even know happened.

I buy a few and stumble back into the oppressive two o’clock heat, satisfied by my find. I walk the few blocks along the main road to the post-office to unload dog-eared and moldy postcards of Cambodia. The stamps need to be glued on, giving me the chance to examine the design, entitled “burning ceremony of seized drugs”. In the top right corner, it shows a pile of lose white powder, a spoon and a pipe with a red cross through them, with a large bonfire in the centre of the stamp. I stifle a laugh, mail the cards and step back out into the heat of Laos, pleasantly surprised by the tiny country I had few expectations of.