An Unknown World

Perhaps my psychic defences were worn down a little by the almost incessant barrage of fear coming out of the popular media. Or maybe it was the result of the aforementioned leg injury, which ended up turning septic before a match-sized thorn was eventually noticed and extracted. Or maybe it was Mars being retrograde, or the lousy weather at the moment or … well whatever it was, I’ve been feeling a bit worn down and jaded this past week. 

In the UK, we now seem to have a government that rules by diktat, with edicts about wearing facemasks or ‘social distancing’ rules being enthusiastically enforced by a police force that is supposed to enforce laws ratified in Parliament. These same police most recently put a stop to a peaceful rally in Trafalgar Square being held by those who don’t consent to the power grab. In the process they arrested a German doctor who was about to give a speech, and punched an old woman in the stomach. Habeas corpus, the lawful recourse of people who feel they have been wrongfully imprisoned is now openly flouted.

Things certainly felt gloomy for a little while there until I picked up a book poking out of my shelf that suddenly seemed to catch my eye. The book in question was Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun – a memoir of the late Polish journalist’s years of living in Africa and reporting from some of the most blighted places in the world.  I’d bought it at Nairobi Airport on a trip to Kenya a few years ago, and it had been sitting there unread ever since. Pretty soon I found myself engrossed in Kapuscinski’s (RK for short) account of post-civil war Liberia.

“We drove through the streets of Monrovia. On both sides jutted forth the black, charred stumps of burned demolished houses. Not much remains here of such destroyed buildings because everything – bricks tin and surviving beams included – will be instantly dismantled and plundered. There are tens of thousands of people in the city who have fled the bush, have no roof over their heads, and just waiting for a bomb or a grenade to strike a house. When it does they descend upon it at once. With the materials they are able to carry away they will erect a hut, a shack or simply a roof to protect them from the sun and the rain. The city which was probably built initially of simple low buildings is now cluttered with these haphazardly not together structures and looks even more stunted having assumed the appearance of something makeshift, impermanent, recalling more than anything an encampment of nomads.” 

There follows an account of the history behind why Liberia got into this state. He writes in a similar way in the same book about the genocide in Rwanda, the chaos of Zimbabwe, the dictator Idi Amin and the conflicts over diamonds in Angola. His stories are full of thugs, warlords, child soldiers, sleazy gem dealers, roadblock bullies, torturers and villains. The most common item to appear on the pages is the AK-47 assault rifle, but – amazingly – RK is never morbid or exaggerating. If anything, through all the tragedy (and some less-than tragic tales, it must be said) the thing that shines through the most is the amazing resilience of the people who have to live through all this trauma and yet still, somehow, keep smiling.

All of a sudden, my concerns seemed rather petty. Embarrassing even. The heavy mood lifted, and I felt an upwelling of gratitude. It was a reminder to me that there’s a whole world out there, a world where people think differently, act differently and where the values they hold might be incomprehensible unless you take the time to understand where they’re coming from. And it’s through writers like RK that we get to see glimpses of that world and broaden our own outlook. 

Anyway, because I had a lot of other work on this week I didn’t have much time to write a longer blog piece, so I’m going to share with you a few pages of my diary from when I was backpacking around Laos, in southeast Asia, at the turn of the century. We’d been staying in a small remote village for a couple of weeks among people who were only just being exposed to the consumer culture. If nothing else, I hope it acts as a reminder that there’s a whole different world out there. 

This particular entry recalls the time when me and a couple of friends found ourselves in need of an exorcism.  

***

That time I underwent an exorcism in rural Laos. 

January 30, 2001

We spent a further week in the little riverside village of Muang Ngoi and got to know many people there, if only by sight. Mamma (the old lady whose house we were staying in – her real name was unpronounceable, we were told) and Auhern continued to look after us although Auhern had to go away to Vientiane to visit a nephew who had had a serious motorbike accident and who may or may not have lost a leg.

Days would be spent sitting on a pleasant sandy beach beside the clear flowing river. Swimming in the river provided a great opportunity to exercise and get clean at the same time. Normally there were plenty of children playing or working down on the beach and we got to know a few of them. 

This being the dry season, the river level was low and vegetable gardens had been planted on the sandy slopes of the bank. In these gardens were technicolor lettuces, tomatoes, sweet peas and a host of other more exotic edibles. I offered to lend a hand to a family with the watering of their garden. The two young girls, Aun and Olid, thought this was very funny. Who’d have thought that a falang could do something useful? But watering the garden simply involved filling up a pewter watering can in the river and climbing the bank to the garden where the pure water could be administered to the dry sand. In this way I became known to Aun and Olid as ‘nam falang’ (‘water foreigner’).

The market came and went. This was a twice monthly event and one that was much anticipated by the villagers. The traders, a mix of different ethnicities, came the day before in a multitude of vessels and set up stalls in the market area at the centre of the village – some of the stalls being made of old bomb casings the Americans had dropped on them. We had excitedly been told that the market sold ‘everything’. We later realised that the average Muang Ngoian concept of ‘everything’ innocently stretched not much further than tools, pans, clothes and string. 

On market day a buffalo was slaughtered and the residents filed back from the execution spot with plastic bags of flesh, gibbets and blood. It took two strong women to carry the head along the street on a pole. The eyes of the dead beast looked placid, philosophical even. Later on two other women struggled along with the poor beast’s heavy skin, which looked like a saggy pantomime costume complete with legs and udders. All the villagers ate buffalo that day, including us. We were invited to sit around with Mamma and Auhern, dipping balls of sticky rice into soup and munching the flesh wrapped up with raw chilli in lettuce leaves.

And we were invited to another village wedding. It seemed that having foreigners present was auspicious, and we were glad to join in. The festivities were lasting a full week and as such an unscheduled holiday at the village school had been called. 

Michelle, Jon, Paula and I went along to the festivities, which were taking place under a bamboo framed tent over the road from Mamma’s house. A young village couple were getting married and, predictably enough, lau-lau (home distilled rice spirit) was being liberally proffered. It wasn’t long before I found myself solemnly dancing around in a circle – as was customary – with the various embarrassed-looking female villagers. Alas, the nature of too much lau-lau consumption is quite self-destructive and I eventually stumbled out of a villager’s hut sometime in the middle of the night, not remembering that it was on stilts off the ground. I was lucky not to break a leg. 

Although I didn’t hear it at the time, the lau-lau had had a similarly bad effect on Jon and Paula and they found themselves simultaneously throwing up out of their window into the darkened street. This made quite a racket, and later on one of the villagers said he thought they were a pair of buffaloes that needed milking. 

The next morning I wasn’t allowed to indulge in a hangover. Even before breakfast we were dragged back to the wedding festivities, which were continuing apace, to drink more lau-lau

The pace inside the hut was frenetic and I found myself surrounded by manically grinning men who were holding clear bottles and pewter cups and repeating a word that could only mean one thing: drink! They’d been up all night and one could only guess how much lau-lau they’d consumed. After a few cups of this someone decided I should eat something and I was spoon-fed some cold, greasy fried eggs and a lump of buffalo fat with the hairs still on one side. As it went down, I realised the friendly young buffalo who’d been tied outside the hut the day before – the one I’d been stroking and feeding cabbage leaves – was no longer there. 

This was too much for me and it was a good job that Jon suddenly appeared and took me away from the crowd before I began retching. I spent the rest of the day on the beach being looked after by the others and acting as bait for the sand flies. Later in the day Mamma came to see me and gave me stern look. Deciding that I was in need of help she performed a blessing, which involved tying bits of string around my wrists and tutting at me in Laotian (she didn’t speak a word of English, so it’s amazing how well we all got along with her).

The next day, despite my bracelets, I felt truly awful. What’s more, I was covered in sand fly bites and the itchiness was intense. I flinched away from the male villagers, worried that they may have more lau-lau hidden on them somewhere. Finally, the wedding celebrations had paused. 

Unfortunately for all concerned this is when someone mentioned showing Mamma the horoscopes that we had found written on little scraps of paper in the Pak Ou caves. Michelle was first. 

Mamma read it, cooing all the time and emitting high pitched squeals of delight. By the end of it Mamma’s face was aglow with delight. Clearly she had a good horoscope. American Mitch, with his various dictionaries, managed to translate some of it which had something to do with Michelle’s ‘voice rising vertically’, a quality which is considered to be very auspicious in Laos.

Jon was next. Mamma read his scrap of paper and her brow furrowed ever deeper with each line she read. She sucked air in between her teeth, like a plumber about to give you a quote, and shook her head sadly. By the time she reached the end there was no question about it: Jon was doomed.

Paula and I came last. By coincidence we had similar horoscopes and the results, as interpreted by Mamma, did not bode well either. Again there was much shaking of the head and little sharp inhalations as though she were being jabbed by pins as she read. Mamma began to look truly worried about us. Suddenly it wasn’t really much fun anymore. The news of our bad omens seemed to spread and before long I sensed that people were keeping away from us like we had some sort of contagious illness. One woman, having learned about my horoscope, came and looked me deep in the eyes (keeping her distance from me at the same time) as though I were about to be hung. Later on that day, on the beach, some children came up to Jon and pointed at his throat making slitting actions and laughing. We really didn’t need all that.

Mamma’s jolliness disappeared and she became offish towards us. We would have to be blessed by priests, she indicated, otherwise our fate was sealed. That night someone stood outside our window until dawn and I could hear mutterings and the sound of pouring water. In the odd scraps of sleep I managed, I had horrific nightmares and woke up yelling and shaking with fear. An irrational part of me thought some of the village men might take it upon themselves to get rid of whatever demons they thought we had brought into the village. Given the earlier throat-slitting warning Jon had received, I spent most of the night in a cold sweat, ready to escape out of the window the moment our door opened. Paula, in the next room, said she experienced the same fear and had not managed a wink of sleep.

Early in the grey dawn I went downstairs and discovered Mamma’s diminutive figure crouched over an oil candle and surrounded by burning incense. She was putting biscuits into little plastic bags and sealing them with the flame. She did not seem to be in a very good mood. I asked her about my exorcism and she sternly told me to come to the temple with her. I went upstairs and roused Jon and Paula. They too had to be exorcised.

They came downstairs and we solemnly waited for Mamma to finish her preparations. We had been wrong. She had not wanted us to go to the temple but to give alms to the monks on their daily rounds. Suddenly, along the damp earth road outside the hut, a procession of young monks being led by an orange robed elder appeared. I recognised one or two of the young novices who’d been pestering us for cigarettes. Mamma shoved pewter offering dishes into our hands, ordered me to kick off my sandals and hustled us out to the street. Jon and I had biscuits, while Paula and Mamma had sticky rice. We crouched barefoot on the road and placed the food into the monks’ bowls as they filed past. Mamma said something to the elder and the procession halted. 

On an order from Mamma we got down on our knees in supplication and, with the bowls on the floor and our hands pressed together as in prayer, incantations were made over us. The whole village, so it seemed, had come out to witness this spectacle. After a few long minutes the incantations ceased and the monks moved off to receive alms from more of the villagers. But it wasn’t over yet. Mamma rushed into the house and came out with some bowls of holy water. She may have been up all night preparing this. The four of us squatted in front of her house and slowly poured the water over the earth while Mamma uttered prayers. After this she moved around the house splashing holy water, rice and salt around our rooms and in the dining area – places that we must have spiritually polluted.

And thus we were saved from whatever entity it was that had caused so much worry for the villagers. Paula said that she felt an immediate sense of relief. We celebrated with a cup of coffee and a condensed milk pancake.

But it was time to say goodbye to Muang Ngoi. Paula and Jon were staying on; she was going to teach at the school (when it finally reopened after the wedding festivities). To help her and the children we had donated our National Geographic world map. We said goodbye to Mamma, who was now back to her happy self again, and trooped down to the beach where a longtail boat was waiting to sweep us downstream to Nong Khiaw.

5 Comments

  1. Yeah, as the catch phrase says; “first world problems”. It’s good to do frequent reality checks, as things could be so much worse. Oh, they will be getting worse for us lucky ones, but we are still a far far way from the living conditions that billions live in.

    We even have “Karens” now.

    My eyes were opened just a tad back in the early eighties when my job took us to the Caribbean for a while. Too bad GDP instead of GNH is what drives policy in the global economy.

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      1. That’s weird, it works for me. I know a lot of his videos have been pulled recently due to his views on the virus that shall not be named. It’s basically ‘First World Problems’ by Ian Brown, formerly of the Stone Roses.

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