Back in China now, ready to rock, teach.
**Friday, February 25 I play a fundraiser for the Library Project.
8:00 to 10:00 pm Belgian Bar, South Gate Xi’an, China.**
If you’ve been following, you know from last month’s post (phew, a month!) that my friend and colleague
Clinton Powell passed away quickly and unexpectedly at the beginning of the year. His passing overwhelmed me with more than a few dark nights of the soul here on the other side of the world. Being alone and grieving unable to get back to the States in honor of Clinton and all our goodtimes left me wondering what’s the point in my being in China? What do I really want to do? What am I doing here?
So, I got out of China to make sense of it all.
I traveled mostly in northern Laos exploring the countryside, visiting temples and learning about religious belief systems and tribal people. Buddhism, animism, and interestingly enough, Christianity are all present and
in some places combined. In a village outside of Nong Khiew, I met people who seem to have combined the most positive attributes of all three systems—the best of Buddha, Jesus (Catholic-flavored Christ, remnant of French colonial presence late 19th/ early 20th century), and jungle and animal spirits. It seemed to make for very kind and compassionate people—hiking alone on trails, roads, and waterfalls I encountered people eager to share sticky rice and fruit and practice English. Most folks I met, if they spoke English, liked to tell me about their village, customs, and people and national history. I learned a lot.
For example, did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the world? 2.8 million tons of ammunition were dropped on the country, especially around Phonsavahn and in Xieng Khouang Province, thanks to American involvement in Viet Nam in the 1960s and 1970s. Because the Laos government (still communist) supported Viet Nam’s communist regime, this justified U.S. bombers dumping bombs and
ammunition that was unable to be dropped on Viet Nam. It worked like this: The U.S. had an air base in northern Thailand where bombing missions were flown from. If a plane was unable to drop its payload on a target in Viet Nam, it would instead dump bombs over northern Laos as it returned to base in Thailand. Mission pilots were instructed to do this because it was allegedly too dangerous to land with a plane full of unexploded ordinance.
As I listened to this explanation, I wondered why couldn’t pilots just drop the stuff in the ocean? Not a perfect
solution but so much better than dropping bombs on civilian subsistence rice farmers and villagers. In Xieng Phouang Province tons of unexploded ordinance remain from bombing missions run between 1964 and 1973. Currently, as many as 300 villagers are mortally wounded each year working their rice paddies—bombies, small explosives from cluster bombs that never exploded, remain buried in the mud, and in the springtime children, rice farmers, and water buffalo are the unfortunate ones to stumble upon and detonate them. Mostly, it’s children who find them.
Phonsavahn also has its beauty. The Plain of Jars, multiple sites of large sandstone-carved funerary urns dating from 500 BCE, are especially inspiring. They are breathtaking and full of character, seemingly immovable in the higher, drier climate of Xieng Khouang—elevation here ranges between 3,600 and 5,500 feet making for azure skies, crisp clouds, and bright sun. The landscape is more like an African plain or western U.S. cowboy
outpost than the tropical jungles of South East Asia. But evidence of bombs and bombing remain. Hillsides are cratered from explosions, and cafes and restaurants display detonated bombies as a sort of grisly badge of honor, reminding citizens and tourists of what remains buried some thirty years after the war. Regardless of these scars, the area remains stunning, and the Jars transport the mind to ancient ceremony and respected ritual.
Sobering Fun Facts:
Laos population = 6 million Xi’an, China population = somewhere between 7 & 9 million China population = 1.3 billion U.S. population = 300,000,000 Estimated number of cigarette smokers in China = 300,000,000
Luangphrabang in the north central part of Laos is perhaps the best little ‘big’ city in South East Asia. Between 40,000 and 44,000 people live here and it boasts a great night market with quality, inexpensive Laos and Thai food. At the night market you can also find amazing textiles, jewelry, fresh fruits & veggies, all things tiger and elephant inspired. Oh yeah, and great, super-fresh fruit smoothies. I rented a bike here and explored the city and surrounding area.
But the best place for bike exploration is in the valley that cradles Luang Nam Tha in the north. If you’re going by bus from China to Laos and Northern Thailand, this is the first town you’ll encounter. And it’s great, known mostly for its diverse ethnic population—12 different tribes, or ‘ethnic minorities’ as the Laos government labels them, live in this region’s low and highlands.
I was lucky, very lucky. One afternoon I rented a bike and went around the valley and up into one of the highland areas. I ran out of water and had to stop at a Namu village (they sold bottled water). I caught my breath and re-hydrated. I sat and watched matriarchs and young girls gathering materials for making
brooms; I watched a woman cut long strips of bamboo for making baskets for steaming sticky rice. They let me recuperate and take photos. We had little language in common, but we exchanged smiles and good feelings. When I asked if there were any young men in the village who might be eligible for marriage, I know the old woman cutting strips of bamboo knew exactly what I’d asked. She smiled and broke into shoulder-shaking laughter. I nodded and said I was serious. She kept smiling and continued cutting bamboo.
I mean why not? I know it’s not easy living in a village—it’s hard work, and people die young from disease and malnutrition. I’m not all rose colored glasses about this, but being there for an afternoon sitting silent and watching people, learning what they do, how and why they do it, made me realize how backward we in the West, and in China, are. We spend all this time working to make money to buy food, clothing, shelter, while the Camu and other subsistence tribes work hard to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and build their own homes. I saw people working hard, but I also saw people laughing and engaged in games, some playing cards, some singing. Lots of singing.
You know, there’re mail order Thai, Russian, Chinese brides. Why not mail order American brides wanting to down shift, wanting out of the Western game of progress, more, more, more? Yeah, I know the rice paddies have leeches, and bathing’s always in cold mountain water, but I’d get over it. Yeah. I want to start a new trend—mail order American brides for small tribes. You think I’m joking?
But seriously, it was an amazing adventure, and I’m thankful for the escape and opportunity to meet new people, take photos, and live, breathe, love sunshine and warm temperatures. I thought the break would help me figure out a little better the purpose of being in China teaching right now. Still not so clear. But Being in China did give me the opportunity for this very life-changing adventure, gave me the chance to see an inspiring part of the world which very well may hold more for me in the future.
Oh, and I play Friday, February 25 at a fundraiser for the Library Project. 8:00 to 10:00 pm Belgian Bar, South Gate Xi’an, China.
*Not quite a mail order bride yet. Too much music in me.
Much love, Josephine
New website, too. www.josephine-johnson.com