08 April 2007

Green ants and fish

Yesterday I went to my first baci ceremony. It is a good luck ceremony, and this one was held because we’re now leading into new years. New years is from next Friday 13th April until Sunday 15th April. We sit around a floral arrangement looking thing and hold a string connected to it. Some chants are made. Then we tie cotton strings around each other’s wrists wishing each other luck. Some guy from work jokingly wished that I got a Lao boyfriend even though earlier in the day I told him I have a boyfriend from Australia here. It was a fun new years party. It turns out a few of the people in the office can sing really well, and some can play the guitar too. I did some Lao dancing for the first time. Mostly it involves standing around in a circle with the boys in the inner ring and girls on the outer ring and moving slowly around the circle whilst making circular hand movements.

During new years people pour water all over each other, presumably for good luck. People started with a few drops. Then small splashes, then large bucketfuls with ice. Then people just got hold of the hose and started spraying everyone- even the seemingly serious looking 40/50-year-old women. I was so wet for so long that my skin went wrinkly. They even hosed people on their motorbikes as they were leaving. They put talcum powder on my face too. It seems that every Lao person is a kid and heart and it’s really good to see. It’s funny that the hosing temporarily disrupts the circle of dancing.

The people at work are nice to say that I’m like a Lao person. They tell me I only have to live here for 10 years and then I can get citizenship. They were impressed when I tried some raw fish. ‘I’ll tell you what it is after you’ve eaten it’ this guy at work says. I knew it was raw fish. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten raw small fish, which is probably from freshwater rather than usual marine fish I eat as sashimi. I see an ant on the plate of this fish- it looks like it just happened to crawl on there. It turns out that there were mashed tree ants in this raw fish. I had eaten one of these ants in Northern Queensland, well, just I just licked the abdomen that someone squeezed. So the ants it didn’t freak me out too much. Besides, I’d had a fair few Beerlaos already. I really have to learn to sip and sit on it because they just keep pouring and I’m used to measuring my drinks by the glass. They have a sour limey taste and that’s why they put it in the dish. It tastes a little fishy, sour and hot at the same time- much like other Lao foods. I think it’s a bit of a risk of liver flukes if you eat raw fish from the river, so I don’t think I’ll be eating them again. It was worth trying once.

More food…
Khao phiat- means wet rice. They are really nice, chewy round rice noodles that are nearly translucent. Served in a soup with Chinese style roast pork of the crispy skin variety

Pho- Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Unfortunately the broth is not as good as home! But how can you go wrong when it’s less than $2. Sometimes it is served with bible tripe, beef balls and dried squid. This stuff is usually quite salty and is full of msg so even though it’s available for breakfast, probably not that great a start to the day. Too many carbs! I’ve seen someone put a Chinese soup spoon full of sugar in it. The same guy also dipped a chilli in pure shrimp paste and ate it.

Khao sai- rice noodles in soup but with mince meat flavoured with bean sauce on top.

Bible tripe laap- I don’t know who ordered this, but it’s the oesophagus of a cow. Usually at home I only eat it at yum cha, steamed with ginger to remind me why I don’t really like it so I find this an interesting way to cook it. This was quite chilli hot and I ended up eating a bit because the other Aussie volunteers didn’t seem to be very interested.

Europe Steak House- This is the classiest place I have been to so far. The pizza was not bad for $6 US, I had a good dose of tomato and Italian herbs I missed. The steak, for $7US with salad and fries was pretty good too.

Steam boats- I don’t think these are really Lao, but they’re really popular among the Aussie volunteers due to the novelty factor and the fact that the food is very plain because you’re just boiling veggies, noodles and meat in soup. It’s chilli and Lao fish sauce free.

Bomb- a- que- Work participated in a mine awareness day. I thought this bomb- a- que was just fun name for the bbq for this day. Actually it was made from the casing of a bomb. Apparently it splits in half in the air and lots and lots of little bombs come out of it. You can buy these bomb- a- ques for $50, which I find kind of weird. Most of the time these old bombs hurt people when they’re locating them for scrap metal.

Foods to try
Laap flavoured Pocky sticks, well, imitation ones
Bitter gourd fried chips

Our mai- ban (= ‘house mother’= maid) started yesterday. The poor girl stayed for 2 hours more than she had to because there was so much work to do on the first day. It must be really hard starting new jobs. We have this weird dual tub washing machine that has one half for washing, the other for spin-drying. So you have to wash, spin, rinse, spin. I’m not sure why they’re not fully automatic- I can’t see any advantage in this over an automatic one. Maybe it’s quicker this way if someone’s around? Maybe it can take more washing. Most likely it’s the annoying producer practicing price discrimination. She will be here 3 days a week and will help us with shopping, cleaning, doing laundry and paying bills. It makes life easier. Some people have their mai- bans cook but we decided not to go that far.

We have a guard that maintains our garden too. While our guard was outside, he told our Lao friend over the phone that the guard was worried about his job. I wasn’t going to fire him while he was standing just outside our house so we kept him. He does a pretty good job of our garden, which is cool.

The house comes with a cat. It is a relatively small back cat with a few small patches of fur missing. It whinges all the time- pretty much whenever it sees us. I think we’ll have to take responsibility for it. We’ve noticed it kills geckos and probably eats them.

I’m going to Luang Prabang for new years, which should be good. It’s a world heritage listed city in the north. I’ve booked a kayaking tour. We’ve been advised to get out of Vientiane because the roads can get a bit dangerous around that time of the year with drink driving and people throwing dirty water over people while they’re driving. I’ve heard they put dye and flour in the water and it can totally ruin your clothes!

We’ve been eating a lot on the Mekong River where you just sit on a mat under some tarps. I paid 20c to use the squat toilet, which had no paper. It’s also a holding space for bottles to be reused. They reuse soft drink bottles here rather than recycle them. I think it’s labour intensive to collect them and that’s why it wouldn’t work in Australia. That’s what happens when labour is expensive- there’s a significant environmental cost. The funny thing about the toilet was that in the large tub of water you use to flush the toilet, there were two little flathead looking fish on the bottom.

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