Selfies and Self-Reflection in Laos

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Dawn procession Selfie!

Dawn in Luang Prabang, Northern Laos. As they have for centuries, Buddhist monks wearing saffron robes and carrying alms dishes emerge from the many wats that line the streets of this one time capital city and process down its main streets in a single, silent line. Hundreds of locals, mostly women, take their places seated along the sidewalks, their arms filled with baskets of sticky rice wrapped in banana leafs and bags of candy and food. As the procession of monks heads towards them, they maneuver themselves into place, organize their alms, prepare for this most spiritual of Buddhist encounters, and… take a few selfies.

Now, I know the number one rule for adults with teenage lingo is to avoid trying to use it at all costs because you’ll never do it right and always look foolish. But I can’t help myself. Later, on Facebook (which is not likely even the preferred form of communication for Lao teenagers anymore…):

Check me out. Morning procession with the monks! Hope he likes grandma’s sticky rice more than I do!

Day 23 of spiritual rehab assigned by mom after last week’s party. Have 2 get up early, but sooooo worth it! #sexymonkwatch

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Morning procession of monks and street dogs in Luang Prabang. The street dogs know that not all alms make it into the plates.

Travel has always been an opportunity for me to step back and look at myself, to immerse myself in something so foreign and different that I emerge on the other side of the experience with greater clarity. Now, rather than look at myself, I was looking at other people looking at themselves in an awkward clash of the ancient and the very modern. But, 2014 was The Year of the Selfie, so I guess that it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the ubiquity of the selfie had found its way to the dawn procession of monks in Northern Laos. However, it was a bit shocking, a sudden and awkward insertion of the modern into the historic and sacred. But selfies capture people doing the things of their lives, and maybe capturing and posting the moment ups the spiritual karma payoff for the individual. Regardless, it made me want to get out of the city and into the countryside, in search of a Laos that was still off the grid.

We decided to go on a forest trek to a waterfall – Kuang Si Falls – one of the many waterfalls for which Laos, “The Land of Waterfalls” (also “The Land of a Million Elephants – perhaps we could combine the two?) was known.

Our first stop was in a Hmong village. The Hmong, one of Laos’ 48 official ethnic minorities, have a checkered history in modern Laos. The CIA recruited, trained, and supported an estimated 50 to 100 thousand Hmong solders in the covert war against the Lao and Vietnamese communists in the 1960s and 1970s. When the war ended, many those Hmong who survived fled Laos; some, however, continue to fight or flee the Lao government to this day.   Other Hmong, like the village we visited, live sometimes tense but peaceful existence in modern Laos, welcoming tourists and producing traditional handicrafts for sale and export.

Watch out for friendly boys that like to play house, little girl. One day they'll kidnap you.

Watch out for friendly boys that like to play house, little girl. One day they’ll kidnap you.

Here traditional marital practices endure. When a Hmong man spots a Hmong woman from another clan that he feels would make an attractive partner, he gets a few of his buddies together, and they zig, or kidnap, her. The kidnapped love is taken back to the young man’s home, where the charm offensive begins (I’ve kidnapped you, now let me woo you). He cooks for 3 days for his captive and sends word back to her family that “everything’s okay, and BTW I’ve kidnapped your daughter.” After three days, the couple is wed. Done. So efficient and void of months of expensive courting. I can only imagine if my engagement to Jess had gone down that way.

I spotted her across the room at a party one day in October. After some clever conversation and a game of beer pong, I decided to make her my wife. My roommates and I held an all-night strategy session, studying maps of the Boston metro area and trying to decide whether it was better to kidnap and transport her via the T (cost savings but potentially awkward conversation on the T-ride back if Jess was not enthralled with the prospect of kidnapping or immediate marriage) or to use one of our cars. We decided that she would be most vulnerable and easily accessible while grocery shopping. So, after purchasing some Shaws’ employee uniforms on the black market (the proposal to dress as different vegetables – cauliflower, carrot, and a pepper – was voted down 2-1 for its potential to draw a crowd and limit to the produce aisle the effectiveness of our camouflaged strike), we gassed up the truck and headed to the Shaw’s on Beacon Street. It was a Sunday afternoon operation, a time when the supermarket would be at its most crowded and people would pay us little attention. We located her in the cereal aisle. Loudly announcing that she had tried to use expired coupons and would have to be escorted out, we produced the cover that allowed us to get her to the truck without interference. Once home, I made her a peanut butter (chunky) and strawberry jelly sandwich, and I sent her father a text.

Dear Bill,

            I have the goods… er, girl. 3 days starts now. See you soon.

            XXOO

            Future son-in-law Matt (Norcini).

PS – wedding details – date, attire, location – to follow. You’re paying, right?

PPS – see attached selfie. Note smile of bride-to-be.

Three days and several sandwiches, 2 apples, and a hot pocket later, we were married. Beautiful story, no?

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Rainy season trails in Laos.

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Rainy season trekking shoes – 10 pounds heavier than the original.

But back to our hike in Laos. We journeyed through cornfields and rubber tree forests past small villages and beautiful scenery, all while trying our best to stick to the path. Even here and now in 2015, there are estimated to be tens of thousands of undetonated explosive ordinances (UXOs) in the soil and forests around Laos. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped more bomb tonnage on Laos than it dropped in the Second World War, and it’s estimated that about thirty percent of those explosives never detonated. Much of that was due to cushioned landings in rice paddies, and those live UXOs still kill nearly a person a day in Laos. Farmers hit them while plowing their fields or lighting cooking fires, and children pick up the baseball-sized shiny “bombies” thinking they’re petaunk balls or other curious objects. With the population of Laos among the poorest in the world, the draw of selling UXOs for scrap metal (one bomb can fetch months of income) leads people to risk digging for them.   And they are risky even for those seeking to stick to the path, as about 7% of annual UXO accidents take place on paths and roads (uxolao.org).

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Searching for bats and Buddhas in a mountain cave that once doubled as a bomb shelter.

Sticking to the path becomes difficult during the rainy season in Laos. We were exploring a cave when the rains hit. The cave, filled with bats and a Buddha, was used as a local hideout during the US bombing raids of the Vietnam War era, and provided us temporary shelter. Had we been more hungry and savvy, perhaps we would have caught and cooked up some roast bat – it’s a dish still enjoyed by the local population. Alas, we had just eaten, and I imagine bat is quite chewy. When it was clear this was no passing storm, we ventured out and onward. The trails rapidly deteriorated into puddles and shoe-sucking muck, and uphill climbs became feats of creative foot placement and hopes that the person in front of you didn’t slip. Don’t forget: stick to the path. So we did for the next two hours, and we got drenched. Our feet were caked with so much mud it was difficult to walk. We reached Kuang Si Falls eventually and behind schedule, but we had made it.

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Pre-jump selfie!

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Kuang Si Falls

Like a pack of wet Lao street dogs, we descended upon the tiered, turquoise pools at the base of the falls. These pools are a top destination for Lao picnics and tourists looking to escape the brutal heat of summer in Luang Prabang. And today, the pools teemed with tourists and locals alike, all recording the moment with…their selfie sticks. Canoodling in the waterfall – selfie! Jumping off a tree into the pool? Selfie-stick it! It was all a stark contrast to the muddied, isolated trek through the forest we had just completed, and an even starker one to life in the Laos forest. Half a day earlier, our trek had begun in a Hmong village where residents eat bat, zig wives, avoid shiny objects in the soil, and struggle to make it in the modern economy by selling traditional handicrafts to distant markets.  Now I stood at the base of the falls like a strange out-of-touch jungle creature, caked in mud and guano and soaked through by the rainy season watching tourists jockey for prime selfie spots and GoPro jump points around the base of the waterfall.   Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe it’s nostalgia for life before the selfie. Or perhaps it’s just reflective of the tensions and contradictions of life in Modern Laos.

I wandered off to one of several wooden stalls to change out of my rainy season soaked clothes. The door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it open. The stall, however, wasn’t empty. Squatting on the floor was an old Lao woman, peeing. She looked up at me, shocked, and I closed the door. Thankfully, as far as I know, that moment was not captured by a selfie.

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