Sunday, March 24, 2013

Laos: Luang Prabang Night Market and Big Brother Mouse

Parasols
Luang Prabang, Laos, has an extensive craft market every night.  It’s full of beautiful, intricate, handcrafted goods like quilts, weaving, jewelry, wood carving, etc.
In most stalls, the women (and it was almost entirely women and their daughters) could be seen working at their particular craft, so it was very obvious that these were not crafts imported from somewhere else, as we suspected in other markets we’d visited.  Lana so desperately wanted to buy all the beautiful things (or at least some of them), but with her bag weighing in around 15 kgs, nothing else can fit. Somewhat strategically we’ve learned it’s best if David carries the cash in his wallet, because Lana is much more tempted by the impulse buy, and it’s much harder to do that if you don’t have the cash on you. 
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The night market is covered by the kind of tents that collapse like an umbrella into a large, square bundle of metal and tarp.  Those tents are set up by very petite, short Lao women. At 6’2”, David hit his head one too many times in the first row of vendor’s tents, and he wandered back to one end and let Lana wander through on her own (sans cash) to do some pure window shopping. 
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One of the hard things about traveling the way we are is that you simply can’t buy anything. You can’t afford it, you can’t put it anywhere, and we’ve learned it’s just too darned expensive to try and ship home.  You have a really good reason to say no and mean it.  Also, if you carry around a 15kg pack (not to mention a 8kg daypack of electronics and/or camera gear) for very long you begin to think about what you might be able to do without. Gee, do I really need raincoat when it’s 101 degrees tomorrow?
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We learned very quickly exactly how much of being a tourist is buying things. It’s a lot. A whole lot. Every town in South America, in Asia, and even in Australia. They all have a market area, or an artisan area, or a night market. There are women selling coconut shell scoopers and harem pants on little backwater offshoots of the Mekong Delta. You can buy water bottle holders and hats on the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail.  Yes they are making money, your dollars are important to those women and those communities.  And when we travel on vacation, Lana is always one to buy something tangible and functional as a memory of someplace.
For better or for worse, though, this is not that trip. And truthfully, as tough as it is, it’s freeing, too. The markets are always interesting, and even if you’re not buying anything they’re worth a visit to see what people are selling, what people are buying. You have an opportunity to be an observer rather than a gatherer. In Luang Prabang, Lana took David’s camera for a spin and just took photos of things she would have bought in another life, on another trip. The colors of the weavings were so vibrant, and the soft greetings of “Sabaidee” (the Lao equivalet of ‘aloha’) were cheerful and warm.  We didn’t spend enough time in Laos (in a whole 6 1/2 months we can count on one hand the places where we felt like we’d stayed “long enough”) but some of the most vibrant memories of it will be those firework riots of color in the fabrics, the sweet friendliness of the women working on embroidery or nursing their babies while rearranging their wares to the best possible advantage.  And I don’t need a scarf to remind me of that.
These pictures, framed on a wall of our house will work just as well.  So I take this moment to say khàwp ja̖I (thank you) to those women who allowed me to capture these memories.
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While the cat was away wandering through the night market with the camera, the mouse found something interesting set up at one end. A display of books (always an attention getter for us Bumps).  It was also an attention getter for children, and there was a constant gathering of little kids pulling books off the display and raptly paging through them.  The display was set up by Big Brother Mouse, an organization that is attempting to increase literacy rates among children.  Since there is very little Lao text published, they started writing and publishing themselves.  The young man minding the display was one of the authors and illustrators.  The books were for sale, but there was also an option to buy books for schools, to be distributed there.  When Lana came back out of the tunnels market, David pointed the books out.  This was a no-brainer purchase.  Books for kids always make sense.  We decided to buy one of the small collections for a school, and Lana signed their donation logbook.  It was pretty full already, and when Lana commented on that, the author/illustrator mentioned he had three full log books at home from past donors. 
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Here, finally, at the end of the night market was something—tangible and real—we could buy. And it wouldn’t take up any room in our suitcases, but we could carry it with us. We hope this small donation serves as a khàwp ja̖I to Luang Prabang for it’s hospitality.
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This was the author/illustrator we met, manning the booth.
David got a shot of Lana excitedly signing the donation book.
It’s worth pointing out that only two pictures in this whole post were taken by David (the crummy two, in fact) who went into the role of documentary photographer when Lana was signing the log book.  Lana is proud of the pictures she took, and rightfully so.  We’ll definitely be trading cameras more often.
P.S.—If you are interested in Big Brother Mouse and the work they do, please check out their website. They have a Paypal donation button set up if you would like to make your own donation toward literacy in Laos.