Going to the market is always an adventure.
I have to be out on the shoreline at around 7 am to get the attention of the market boat as it goes downstream to pick up some regulars at the temple. I luckily learned the two finger whistle to which the driver acknowledges with a wave. A few minutes later he comes back upstream and I jump onto the boat as he steadies it against the shore with a long bamboo pole. We make a few other stops to take on more people heading for the port ‘city’ of Nakasang. At some stops, people just hand off money rolled up with a shopping list and held together with a rubber band. It takes about half an hour to make our way upstream past the jungle forests and occasional homes and guesthouses. It’s a beautiful ride.
The water on the Mekong rises and falls from season to season. Right now it’s up fairly high but not as high as the flooding last year. With the world locked down over COVID-19, there are very few tourist on the islands. The few that have not evacuated are probably not likely to go back anytime soon. The lack of tourists is devastating to the local economy. It has also made local stores stop buying some of the items foreigners desire, like cheese and some of the fruits and vegetables that the Laos people don’t normally use in their cooking.
Another market boat has pulled up near us and is passing us as we round the bend and Nakasang comes into view. It seems the race for the best place to park is on!
From the water, the town looks like collection of shacks. We search for a place to pull in and disembark. It’s a good thing I wear shoes made of rubber because we couldn’t quite make it to the shore. We all try our best to stay dry but it is a losing battle.
The shore and the water we are trying to avoid is full of garbage and plastic bags. If they finish eating a bag of potato chips it just drops from their hands right there as they walk away. Discarded half dissolved cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, used netting, weeds, plastic bags all littering the shore. The drivers of motor bikes with a side car, called “samlau”, meaning 3 wheel, call out to us to drive us to the market. Most of us walk saving the money for the return trip laden with all the heavy produce and other items.
My reason for a trip to town today is to buy some plumbing parts. Last night our sprayer for the toilet, also known as a butt gun, broke and wouldn’t stop spraying water! So my first stop was at the “Chinese store”. There are several now in Nakasang but this one of the best. The Chinese lady that runs the cramped little shop speaks minimal Laos and no English but is quite adept at figuring out what anyone wants and always seems to have it in stock. The other Chinese shops have a lot of space but never seem to have what I’m looking for. She was closed for a while at the beginning of COVID lock down because she was stuck in China where she had been visiting family. Being part hardware store and telephone shop and odds and ends has served us all well.
I walked on up to the market and got some tomatoes and a cup of Lao coffee. The coffee is very strong, rich and dark, poured into a small glass with about a finger width of sweet condensed milk. It tastes delicious with almost a chocolate flavor. As I began to walk back, I saw one of my samlau drivers buddies and flagged him down. The 20 cents the short ride would cost was not much to me but meant another fare for him. He tells me that the next group of cyclones about to slam into Vietnam will bring us even more rain in about three days. We’ve had way too much rain way too late. This is not goodfor the rice harvest this year. Times are tough.
Back to the boat to wait.
The boat owner and shopping service man is ironically named “Buy”. It is his real name. In more irony, the woman at the corner store is named “Bought”. They are unaware of their ironic names as neither speaks English. The wait to leave can take a long time if you’ve only come for a few items.
Last time I went to market I asked Buy how old he was. The following conversation was in Laos but I will translate it for you.
Buy, “I’m 64, how old are you?”
I replied, “Me too.”
Buy, “How old is you wife?”
Buy, “Do you have children?”
Me, “Yes. I have two from a previous marriage and Donna has four from previous marriages”
Buy, “I have seven. “
Buy, “Have you got a Laos wife?”
(This is a really common question that I get all the time)
Me, “No, my wife wouldn’t like that. “
Buy, “I have two. One to work the fields and one for the kitchen and bedroom. “
They have a different outlook on marriage and family here. As we understand it, when a young couple get married they have three years to decide that the marriage works for them. If not, they split ways. No harm, no foul. If there are children, they just get absorbed into the extended family unit. The children seem to be almost raised by community. We witnessed a divorce once. They took their marriage license and ripped it in half. Done. We knew one man married to a woman a little older than him where she told him to go find someone else to have sex with because she just wasn’t interested in that anymore. Like I said, they have a different outlook on marriage and family here.
I was once told by a Laos man, in English, that the problem is that there are just so many more women than men that this is the reason a man should have an extra wife or a couple of girlfriends… to keep them all “happy”.
We are still waiting in the boat to return as it slowly fills up with goods. 20 bags of charcoal, eight big bottles of water, 10 plus bags of vegetables, two cases of Beer Lao, a case of Lactasoy (a soy drink), a case of various soft drinks in bottles.
The electronic sound effect of rapid fire of machine guns fills the air. The young girl next to me is playing a combat shooting game on her phone.
A really young boy, maybe 3 years old, is following his father walking along the littered shore to their boat carrying a huge plastic bag of raw, hulled peanuts. The young boy doesn’t realize the bag has a hole in itand he is leaving a peanut trail behind him. I call out, then the other people see it call out. He and his father stop. The father picks up a discarded plastic cup from the shore and they begin to recover what has been dropped.
Small long tail boats come and go in a chaotic dance just missing each other. Our boat slowly rocks back and forth from the wakes.
Still we wait.
A boat just pulled in from one of the islands full of exercise equipment and a huge treadmill. I’ve never seen that here before!
Buy has finally arrived and they are filling the boat with more supplies. This is, of course, when one of the young ladies that have been waiting all this time decides she forgot something and needed to go back into the town to find it. The bags of ice are starting to arrive, which is a good sign.
A guy in a boat that just pulled up is wearing a T-shirt that says, “24 hours for sex”
The young lady that ran back into town for her forgotten item returns.
It feels like we may leave any minute. Exciting!
Still… we wait.
More ice arrived and Buy unties the boat. The motor is started and we are finally on our way home!
The trip back always seems faster. I suppose this is because we are going downstream with the current. We stop to make a delivery. You would think that when buying items for different people they would keep the items separate, but no. Buy has several of the bags of groceries that were carefully packed in the back of the boat moved forward where he begins to divide them pulling out some of this and that for the delivery. Finally, the change is counted out, the list returned and we pull away to continue downstream.
One more stop, a similar division of goods, and I’m finally on my way home! Under the bridge along with the rushing water, and soon the boat swings around in gentle arch facing upstream and they maneuver to my steps where I easily step up and onto our landing where Donna is waiting. We call out, “Khob Jai lai lai!”, which means thank you in Lao, as they pull away and head down towards the temple to take the last of their passengers home.
A successful trip!
The next morning we woke up to ANOTHER broken plumbing part so, off to the market!