Following on from the last post which touched very loosely on manners and etiquette, I remember this time in Laos.
We were doing the homestay thing for a night in a rural village. To get there we had to do an arse-destroying 50km on a bicycle, through landscapes of rice paddies and shacks, visiting local villages on the way, learning how they make paper from bamboo, whisky from rice, obtain silk from worms. The villages like time somehow got stuck a long time ago. The houses with thatch roofs and bamboo walls, dim inside smelling of woodsmoke and on the naked packed mud floor piles of firewood. Charred pots and pans hung from the ceiling or walls, wood or woven furnishings, occasionally a tv.
The gears failed on my bike just as we began climbing a 7km hill (mountain) that led to the homestay village. I was riding a lemon. I was in spin class. My legs a blur but I wasn’t going anywhere. After 1km, I would have gladly given up my PIN number. After 4km, I would have sold my grandmother for a lift and a cold drink.
I eventually made it to the summit and the village and there with everybody else I sat waiting, outside of a shop next to the road. Wilting, with a thousand-yard stare like I’d just been buggered in prison. I was merely dying, really dying. Let me sleep. I didn’t care anymore. My eyes abruptly rolled back into my head and I almost didn’t notice a girl from one of the homestay families, young and beautiful, place a wreath of flowers around my neck. I suppose I must have thought that I’d died and an angel had come to collect me.
I could only explain myself to her in a series of lamb-like bleats. She also gave a wreath to Ratface. The others were given one too by members of different families and paired up. Only Boxhead and a guy called Nick were left alone. But Nick was well-travelled and could speak many languages, and Boxhead, uhhhhhhhhhhh… never mind
Ratface and I followed our angel to the house we’d be sleeping in. It was made of concrete and bigger than most in the village. My legs were butter.
It hurt to sit down. Dear god, it hurt. The family joined us on the living room floor.
We smiled. They smiled. We nodded. They nodded.
It was awkward. One of the daughters could speak some English which made it a little less awkward.
It was still awkward.
Our rank smell must have reached their nostrils because shortly we were led to a nearby stream to wash.
I imagine that as we stood there in our skids, shocking the local population with our physiques, meekly throwing water over ourselves, I imagine that all of the ladies in the village were placing pictures of their husbands facedown.
Back at the house we joined the grandfather on the floor for dinner. There was a table between us. On the table, laid out on banana leaves was a feast of sticky rice and spicy fish, chicken and bamboo shoots. In the background a tv silently flashed images at us.
We smiled. The old man smiled. We nodded. He nodded. We smil- …you get the idea
He signalled for us to start. He insisted we drink shots of rice whiskey, grinning, revealing no teeth.
Jesus Christ… ok
Each time I was close to clearing my plate, more food arrived at the table. I was determined to finish the food that these kind people had prepared. I forced bolus after bolus of stodgy rice down my throat, one after another. It was like a weird twist on that murder in Se7en, where the fat bloke is forced to feed himself to death, except in this instance it was my own manners coercing me rather than the wrong end of a gun. Finally I had to quit. I looked down at my plate, dejected, struggling to breathe, hating myself.
It was later that somebody told me that it is rude to let a guest go hungry in Laos (which I suppose applies anywhere). But in Laos, food is brought out regardless if you want it or not, it wouldn’t have mattered how much I ate, I would have always been given more. What this means is that I almost ruptured my stomach in a battle of good manners.
And it’s almost 2am as I write this almost five years later on my last night in El Salvador in my lonely room, me and the pale blue, quiet walls and the rats in the ceiling and the heavy slaughterhouse door, and the dust and the living, scatty sounds of the deepest night. For some reason I can’t sleep in this room. Something scares me. The cats on the roof fray my nerves. I don’t know what it is, anxiously I wait for the dawn light. And I write this, it seems a long time ago, but five years? I realise that whatever is in this room doesn’t frighten me, it’s nothing, because what I’m really afraid of is time.