Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Waking Early 3 - Characters

One of the best things about holidays is meeting new characters.

Of course, there are the wonderful people you talk to as you're wandering round - whether it be with a smile, a gesture, or a long conversation in a language you don't understand. The woman selling live mud crabs in the market:

The patient weaver and our helpful teacher in a craft centre near Vientiane (more of which in a later blog):

Or the kids playing in the village:

Then there were the tribal people in the village on the Bolaven plateau, where we didn't want to take photos, as many were drunk, and their situation - and our tourist eyes - made us uncomfortable.

One of the most fascinating characters was the curator of the dinosaur museum in Savannakhet. His passion for his fossils ("Please handle my fossils," he urged me, opening drawer after drawer) was palpable. He was a self taught palaeontologist and worked with a tiny team, and French support, to conserve his collection.
  There were the guests at our hotels - not that we stayed long in any one hotel. Our first night on an island in the south of Laos brought a handful of German tourists, of whom Herr Flick (recognisable to British tv viewers of 'Allo 'Allo) was the most memorable, with his precise haircut and speech, explaining to his patient wife over and over again everything she could already hear or read for herself on signs and menus.  The same hotel brought us a Michael McIntyre look-alike who spoke like Jamie Oliver, grinning and joking with us beguilingly as he served us breakfast by the Mekong. I assumed he had travelled abroad, but he assured me he'd learned his English and his jokes from English-speaking tourists, innit, mate! And not to forget the grumpy French owner - overweight and in his seventies, but with a charming Lao wife.

Another hotel, this time in the Savannakhet Casino (yes, we stayed right inside a casino), was headed up by Mr Smiley, a Thai who refused very, very politely to give us a password for wifi because, we realised, he didn't want his clients gambling online when they should have been hunched over his tables and slot machines.

Our first driver was  wide boy who looked about fifteen, but rode over potholes too fast and got lost - and was sacked on day two! Our second was silent, but professional. He too nearly got lost - map reading obviously not a prerequisite in this country of few roads - but was never late for picking us up, and always handed us wet towels and cool water whenever we came back to the minivan.

And finally our guides. The first, in Luang Prabang, loved talking about footie, and showing us (below) the drums in the temples. We spent an entertaining morning negotiating with a bank, and then a hotelier friend of his as we tried to pay for our holiday (the bank said it was too much money in one transaction, but the hotelier eventually obliged, and all went smoothly).

And our second guide was marvellous, with his two catch-phrases:
"Now for some information," as he launched into a page or two of statistics about Laos' economy and geography; and, usually at around one pm, "How about your lunch?"
"How about it?" I would say as my stomach grumbled and the nearest eatery might be half an hour's drive away. He only let us down once when he got carried away showing us the customs post at Laos' newest bridge over the Mekong of which he was obviously extremely proud, and we ate in a noodle shop surrounded by smelly goods vehicles. Actually, we could have avoided the bridge altogether, but we were so fond of him by then, and it was his last day with us, that we let him have his way. A slim guy in his thirties, with good English and an encyclopaedic knowledge of facts on Laos, he had opened up to us over the eight days, telling us he was too critical to have a career in government, and saying rather ruefully that he'd been offered a term at a Singapore university, but couldn't afford to go. We both wished him well when, later that afternoon, and after circling three times round the one-way system, we finally found our hotel in the capital, Vientiane. For a few days afterwards I missed his "more information" and "how about lunch?".

And finally, no one can spend time in a buddhist country without being impressed by the monks collecting their rice from all the local people at dawn:
Or the people (including another hotelier we met) who wake every day at 4am to cook the rice to give the monks. This is my third day of waking early to blog. But not nearly early enough to cook rice at 4am! Respect.


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