How do you say Happy Birthday in Lue Mien? – Ban Chong Ka, Laos, Asia
I have had quite the adventure getting to my destination of Ban Chong Ka, a small village located in northern Laos. The monsoon season started in Laos; the roads were a disaster. It was an insane road trip that took 12 hours from the border town of Huay Sai to Luang Nam Tha. The truck I was traveling in got stuck in the mud twice, than the gas line broke. Our driver and his associate, a woman who laughed even when a truck flipped over in front of us, made frequent stops to fill the radiator with water, which was collected via a piece of bamboo pipe from puddles on the road.
The vehicle that flipped over, blocked our passage. Myself and the other passengers had to push it over and back onto the "road". Luckily no one was hurt. This stretch is known as the super highway in Laos. I was able to make it to my ultimate destination, Ban Chong Ka, which is 10 kilometers from the Chinese border.
Would I be remembered
Purpose of this journey was to meet Nai fu Chow and her son-in-law, Kam Pheng. They are from the Yeo, or as they call themselves – Lu mien hill tribe. I established a friendship with both of them during a previous visit to Ban Chong Ka. I also wanted to deliver books and teaching materials to the village school, as well as to Nai Fu's children.
At first I was not sure what kind of reception I would receive. I did not tell Nai Fu that I was coming. It had been a year, almost to the day, when I last stayed in the village. The only communication between us was a letter and a postcard. I thought they would forget who I was, or worse, think I was some crazy missionary.
When I first entered the village, no one was home. Almost everyone was working the rice paddies, except for a few women and small childern. The driver, whom I hired in Mung Sing, and I attempted to locate Nai Fu s house. With no success, we returned to the vehicle to find that he ran out of gas! We both started laughing. We had to walk down a dirt road about one kilometer, then to the main road to purchase diesel fuel that local people sell in old beer Lao bottles for about 3,000 kip, or three dollars.
I returned the next day to the village with a photo and letter that Nai Fu had sent to me in San Francisco. I was surrounded by curious villagers who directed me to Nai Fu's home. I was very nervous. She is the patriarch of her family. But my uneasiness soon disappeared when we met each other again. Nai Fu was wearing her trademark turban, and intricately embroidered Lu Mien waistcoat and pants.
I have a very limited Lao vocabulary, but the chemistry we had developed from my last trip was still evident, even after a year's absence. She definitely remembered me. She had received all of the books and school supplies I sent from San Francisco. I also found Kham Pheng, the schoolteacher and tuk tuk driver who helped me during my last trip to Laos. He drove me back to my guesthouse and past a military checkpoint in the middle of the night. It was manned by men wearing beer Lao shirts and AK 47s looking for opium smugglers on their way to China. I will never forget his ability to smile no matter the circumstances.
I met a 17-year old Mein male who spoke basic English. We went into town. I decided to purchase 40 notebooks and 70 pens for the school, plus a Lao English dictionary and a school planner for the Kam Pheng. In addition I had children's books from the U.S. that I gave away to some of the village kids. I really do not know if I am making an impact, but at least it will give the children a headstart at school.
An opportune moment
I found out that I returned at an opportune moment since it happened to be Nai Fu's 46th birthday. The traditional Lu Mien do not celebrate birthdays in the same sense as we do. For them it is a day of reflection and communing with the spirits. I wanted to celebrate our reunion; no one thought it would be a bad idea.
I decided to purchase a birthday cake witch is not easy to do in a remote border town like Mung Sing. When I picked up the cake, I had to return via a packed pick-up truck with bench seats. I was hoping it I would make it without dropping the cake. When I arrived, it seemed like the whole village was ready for a party. I cut the cake into 25 pieces. After the birthday gathering, I drank with Nai Fu's husband, Po Po and his friends. We drank massive quantities of cheap Chinese beer and a potent rice alcohol known as lao lao that leaves your lips burning for hours.
Lots of neighbors came for the festivities. My Minolta was passed around; each person became an amateur photographer. I stayed at Nai Fu 's house for two nights. I met her father who is 85 years old; maybe the oldest person in Laos since life expectancy is 57 for men. He was wearing a French Beret, smoking a two-foot long bamboo opium pipe, coughing a lot. I found out that he, as well as many of the villagers, suffer from an upper respiratory condition; even young people have bad lungs.
The day I finally had to leave was emotional. Khem Pheng gave me his Yeo crossbow and 10 arrows. I was shown how to use the crossbow by a very enthusiastic 10-year-old boy who wanted to train me in its art. He steadied my arm while I aimed at a fence and pulled the trigger. There was a loud whack and a great force. I was happy no one walked by at that precise moment. I was also presented with an elaborate baby carrier that Nai Fu stitched herself. They said they consider me their friend; I told Nai Fu I thought of her as an older sister. I promised to come back in a year. Of course, I forgot to find out how does one wish someone happy birthday in Lu Mien.