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Getting ready for Norway

Trying to find a book on Norway, I came across many of the history books that write of the many battles that occurred through the Viking Age and into the Middle Ages.  Although the blood and guts seemed exciting and although it is clearly an essential part of Norwegian history, I decided to take a different route.

Jostein Gaarder, originally from Oslo and a long time history teacher in Bergen, eventually wrote the best selling book across the world by 1995.  Sophie’s World, which is subtitled “A Novel About the History of Philosophy” tackles 2000 years of philosophy through the relationship between a philosopher teacher and a 14-year-old girl, Sophie.  Through this book, I obviously learn a thing or two about some of the greatest philosophers of all time, but I also get a sense of a peaceful Norwegian village.  One that is next to a lake and filled gardens and trees, so many trees that it becomes like a forest.  The village is safe and idyllic and she and her friend Joanna walk down the streets together.

Although from this book, I don’t learn the great history of the Vikings, I do get a sense that the Norway will be a thoughtful place full of nature and adventure, and I am ever more excited to go.

(Next book on the list: Growth of the Soil, a book that describes the simple life of a Norwegian man who settles and lives in rural Norway, stressing the relationship between characters and the natural environment more than anything else.)

Lao spicy

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On our last night in Laos and our last night on this journey, we take a Lao cooking class, and the class fully exceeds expectations.  The chef is delightfully entertaining, the food is delicious and very cleanly prepared, the other classmates are fun and easy going, and the setting is serene.  The Tamarind cooking class did not disappoint.  When we get back to the States, we may take a break from Asian food for a little while, but we are excited that we can now make a couple easy dishes of our own as soon as we start missing the tastes and smells of Laos.

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Hmong New Year

The New Year is the only holiday of the year for the Hmong. It is, as you can imagine, a big to-do. It’s a chance to feast with family. It’s a chance to show off their new clothing for the year. And it’s time for young Hmong to meet a partner at the market. (Thankfully the practice of kidnap and rape as it once was has largely been abandoned, but there is confusion on the idea of consent.)

Sam, our Black Hmong guide in Sapa, had spent the entire trek talking about and preparing for New Years. We never imagined we’d be invited to celebrate with the White Hmong we’d met in the class in Luang Prabang.

There were four Hmong boys in total, each eager to share their village. They picked us up on motorbikes – sans helmets –and drove us the thirty minutes to the first village of the night.

We went in thinking we knew what to expect, but these houses were smaller and families bigger. There was no loft, and there was no indoor plumbing. The views were of the house next hour, a stones throw away. The kitchens were mostly outside, since there wasn’t room for a fire pit indoors. The homes were made of a mix of materials, some concrete, some brick, some with tin sides, all with dirt floors. There were usually at least three people to a bed, with sheets hung for some separation. Each house had an altar in it, made new every year. The altar gave you a hint into the financial stability of the family. Some were just a piece of white paper with a design drawn in chicken blood and cut shapes representing the number of people in the household. There were no bathrooms. People bathed in the river and boiled buckets of water for cooking. Kids ran with old bike tires down the road for fun and helped tend to the fire. They played with chickens as if they were puppies. Here, there were no pigs. Pigs are too expensive to buy and to keep. There were no tables and chairs as we’d seen before, but instead short blocks, one with a tray balanced on top to serve as a table. The cutting boards were big, beautiful blocks of wood and the dishes looked like china. It was New Years, and the children were buzzing with excitement.

The chicken activities were just beginning at the first house when we arrived. A large group huddled in a bunch as the head of household held a chicken by its legs. When he began the blessings, we moved together in a circle making three full laps to ward off bad spirits. As we moved, he swung the chicken above us. The chicken hit its head on each swing, but didn’t make a peep. We then moved in the opposite direction, three laps, inviting good spirits into the household. When it was over, the children placed leaves threaded together into a bracelet into the center of the ring and we dispersed. The chicken was killed and later that night, we came back to enjoy.

At the second house we saw a shaman at work. He was praying, hitting the doorway with two pieces of a water buffalo’s horns while shaking a circle with symbols. He’d throw it down, and where the symbols landed determined his next chant. Next to him was a basket of eggs with incense. Each egg represented a family member who had passed. Shamans were different here than what we learned about in the Black Hmong community. Shamans were men who’d once suffered and overcome an illness, learning the craft in his sickness. There were many shamans – almost one in every extended family – and the meaning of the chants had already been lost. In Hmong the shaman we spoke with replied, “It’s just what you’re supposed to say.”

At the third house we had our first of four dinners. Here, we crouched around a table set up for us inside and ate chicken killed earlier that night with white rice from the latest harvest. The chicken had been cooked with purple cabbage and cut with a knife into pieces leaving unavoidable shards of bone. The broth sat on the table as well, and everyone was given a large spoon for dipping and re-dipping into the bowl. The chicken was gamey and over boiled, and to them it was a treasure. Chicken is something they eat maybe once every three or four months.

We were always the first to be served. The family watched us as we ate, and when we were done would eat whatever remained. At one home, Lindsey tried the chili sauce. It was HOT and even the family laughed from where they sat on the bed watching us eat, understanding the universal face of heat. At each house the boys would joke that we were missing out as they ate the head, the heart, and other assorted chicken parts that frankly, I didn’t know were edible.

This was one of the most remarkable nights of our lives and certainly the highlight of the trip. We’re so grateful to have been invited into the homes of the White Hmong for New Year’s and for the chance to see what truly felt like the other side of the world. The boys told us that their greatest wish in life is to find love and to make a family, and in that, we felt completely at home.

A classroom experience

On our first afternoon in Luang Prabang, we meet an ex-San Franciscan who has stationed himself in Laos teaching English.  He runs a non-profit school, inviting any and all who wish to learn in what little free time they have. After only a brief conversation, we are invited to his evening class to be interviewed by his students and then join the group for dinner.  We immediately accept.

We’re picked up by students on motorbikes and then make our way to the classroom (and home for some of the students).  The class starts with the students asking Lindsey and me about our jobs and soon morphs into us also asking them questions about the Hmong and their lives.  The students, all boys, are from large families in poor villages.  In most instances, they are the only English speakers in their communities. In Laos, an education is not free. Their families have worked hard and sacrificed greatly to enable them to attend school. But the school system in Laos is insufficient. Teachers are paid sporadically and won’t show up if they have a better offer for their time. It’s not uncommon that teachers don’t know about the subjects they’re teaching, so classes are often spent copying pages from a textbook. We learn that the non-profit English class we are attending strives to supplement the education from Laos schools. The boys learn about the countries that surround Laos. They learn how to maintain a budget. They learn that anything is possible if they can imagine it. The experience is both humbling and inspiring.

Class wraps up with the some of the students playing guitar and all singing along.  Then some have to leave, but we stick around for more conversation over dinner.  The students prepare the dinner and while we eat, we learn the aspirations of everyone around the table and the challenges that they will need to be overcome to achieve them.  The goals we hear vary from becoming a journalist and a teacher to finding love and starting a family.

Lastly, before parting ways for the night, we get the chance to help one of the students with an essay for an application he is working on, which is inspiring both because of the deeply intense subject matter and because of how much he had to get through to get to this point in his life.  Through this essay, we learn the student’s path of many trying and difficult jobs and experiences that led him to today.  We wonder how he ever came up with the idea that things could be different when he had never been presented with an alternative way of life. We’re not sure we would have had the motivation, energy, and general street smarts to even come close to what he has been able to do.

We make plans to meet up again tomorrow for the Hmong New Year’s kickoff before being motorbike back to our Guesthouse.

Lao Elephants

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Elephants are majestic creatures.  Confident in each step, calm with each bite, all the while towering over most other animals.  We adore elephants; want them to be treated kindly, fairly, and humanely.  That said, we were faced with the dilemma of wanting to ride an elephant.  We knew that there is clear research that shows that the trekking chair that goes on the elephant’s back is damaging and painful for the elephant, so we stayed clear of this experience.  That said, we also learned that there is mixed opinion about riding elephants bareback.  It’s a difference that goes back to cultures and economics.  Docile female elephants that are already domesticated and need to be financially supported can be kindly ridden on the back of their necks.

We made sure that these elephants walked no more 4 hours a day, which is the number considered ethical under most temperatures and terrains.  In addition, most of the elephants at the sanctuary we visited were rescued from previous horrible conditions – the one that I rode had previously stepped on the edge of a landmine and was missing a giant toenail.  We made sure that the place we visited didn’t use bullhooks or trekking chairs.  And we made sure that elephants were watched over and given plenty of food and water to be healthy and happy.

Now that we’ve made ourselves feel better about riding a elephants, the experience was awesome.  The connectedness that we feel when riding elephants just behind their ears makes us feel both terrified that we’ll fall about 10 feet but also thrilled to feel the muscles undulate with every step and movement the elephants do.  To try to stay on, both Lindsey and I tense our legs with our knees tucked behind our elephant’s ears and use our arms to try balance on the elephant’s head.  Although it’s clear no one is worried we may fall off, Lindsey and I are still slightly panicked – especially when my giant one (about 1 or 2 feet taller than the rest) decides to pass the other elephants while climbing a steep hill.

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We love the experience from learning to ride an elephant without a chair, helping to wash the elephant in the Mekong, and learning about the history and wonder of elephants all the while.

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Kuang Si Falls, Laos

Pro tip: We visit the waterfalls at 9am, which means less swimming, but more importantly no other visitors. We have the place to ourselves until 10:30am. And what a place it is. The pictures don’t do it justice.

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Luang Prabang

Luang Probang is vibrant and calm. The land is lush and the brown Mekong River is dotted with brightly painted boats. Monks walk quietly, yesterday’s bright orange robes drying on the line. The tuk tuks are orange, blue, red, and white. Golden temples are everywhere. There is one main street in Old Town. It’s just a mile long and extends a few blocks in either direction making the area feel manageable. It’s tropical and only recently discovered by tourists, giving us the benefit of a tourist economy in a place where authenticity reigns.

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At the morning market you can find chicken, dead or alive, rats roasted on a stick, vegetables picked fresh at dawn, and noodles served atop a banana leaf. At the night market you can find jewelry, key chains and spoons made from bombs and unexploded ordinances from the civil war. We were asked not to allow anyone other than registered guests into our hotel, to keep up “public morale”. English is the language of tourists, and tourists are the source of income, so everyone from monks to guides to shop owners are eager to learn. Most only know “shop talk” though, meaning they know the script of their field, but nothing outside of it.  Our favorite restaurant is called Khaiphaen, both for its food and its mission to help street children and youth in Laos. The cuisine in Laos is simple, as most people cook over a fire, using only what can be found in nature. You can still find croissants and baguettes, a relic of ownership by the French.

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Luang Prabang is a Southeast Asian oasis. The UNESCO World Heritage site served as a retreat for us, far from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Laos is in the midst of change. It’s easy to look past the poverty and struggle in the sparkle of Western comfort and the highest level of service. We’re so grateful to get to experience a more complete Luang Prabang.

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Back in Hanoi

We dodged the traffic…

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we tried the egg coffee…

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visited the Temple of literature…

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ate some delicious banh mi…

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visited the markets…

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watched a water puppet show…

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and ended the night with some jazz…

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A Sapa Christmas

The night before Christmas we venture into Sapa. The layer of fog gives the city a mystic feeling, as if everything is moving slower and calmer than the reality of flashing lights and unending requests to “Buy from me now”. We stumble into a Christmas Eve market piled high with Asian tourists and raw meats and, Lindsey’s favorite, a snow machine. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Christmas Day is spent between Trip Advisor’s #1 and #2 recommended dining options: Hill Station Deli and Hill Station Restaurant. There is a brief interlude at Cat Cat Village, a museum meets real life tour through the lives of the tribal people. Every souvenir we buy is proclaimed to be a Christmas gift. We finish the day with a trip on the Polar Express, otherwise known as the Sapaly overnight train back to Hanoi. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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A night in a local home near Sapa

An overnight train combined with hours of carefully teetering over rice fields in the mountains of Sapa left us exhausted. Sam led the way up one last hill in the village of Ta Van to our home for the night. We’d opted to stay in a local house, but didn’t fully understand what that meant until we arrived.

“Hello” was one of the few English words our host spoke. Sam motioned to us to remove our boots and put on slippers as to not get the house dirty. It was dark except for the fire pit in the kitchen. Our host squatted back down over the fire, stirring the vegetables we’d soon eat. The house was large, but empty. The kitchen had only a few low stoops for sitting, a trash can filled with rice, a wooden table for meal prep, and a cabinet with small bowls and chopsticks. A waterspout in the corner was used for washing dishes. There were five red plastic chairs and a folding table that moved from room to room depending on the need. The living room and two beds were not separated by a wall. Behind the TV there was a ladder to the loft where we found two hard mats and a thick blanket: our bedroom. The bathroom was outside and the porch had the most magical view overlooking the village.     

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Sam joined our host by the fire. A little boy wandered in watching videos on a cellphone, the only other light in the room. We drank Coca-Colas outside and listened as the oldest of her three sons motioned to us to come and eat. On the folding table was now a spread of chicken with onions, pork with carrots, tofu with chilis, greens, and a mound of white rice. We scooped rice into small bowls and picked at the rest with chopsticks, watching as her sons ate quietly and quickly, eager to get back to their friends in the living room still watching TV. Our host’s husband came home just as we were finishing and insisted on sharing shot after shot of homemade rice wine served out of an Aquafina water bottle.  Not long after the power went out, the boys scattered, and everyone grabbed their headlamps. One single candle was lit in the center of the table.

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We slept so well that night, waking early to the sounds of roosters spread across Ta Van. Ducks wandered quietly into the kitchen as we sat outside drinking coffee. They were shooed away, then fed dried corn off the cob. Our host went back to cooking the pig breakfast. We felt so well cared for in her home. We were struck by the obvious: This is very different, but how different was it really? Little boys still watched TV, played with cars, and made swords out of bamboo. The family ate dinner together, talked late into the night, and took care of one another. Even in seemingly tougher areas, home is still home.

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