Apologies for the long radio silence, but I’ve been doing relatively uninteresting stuff for the last week or so. (Unless you have a passionate interest in the sociology of AIDS, that is. It is actually quite fascinating, but I’m not going to inflict the academic details on you, and I haven’t managed to digest them into anything readable yet.) Mostly I’ve been relaxing, networking like crazy through the textile and AIDS worker communities, and enjoying the best Californian food I’ve had since leaving home.
Yep, that’s right. Laos has the best California cuisine in Southeast Asia. Amazing, isn’t it? But I’ve found two fantastic places in town: Healthy Fresh, a cafe mysteriously transplanted from Santa Cruz, and Sticky Fingers, a nice restaurant in San Francisco. (Actually it might be Santa Cruz too; they had a live singer doing American folk songs. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in Vientiane. My goodness.) So last night I had a fantastic Moroccan spiced lamb on couscous (plated, even! with nice little bits of zucchini arranged around the edges and some sort of curlicue thing on top), with decaf herbal tea and an excellent creme caramel to follow; today Sticky Fingers is closed, so I’m trundling down to Healthy Fresh for breakfast. After a month of eating beef fried noodles and pho, authentic California cuisine is just wonderful. (Especially since I damn near starved in Vietnam.)
Healthy Fresh even has the menu written in colored chalk on a blackboard outside. The only way you can tell it’s not Santa Cruz is that the word “organic” doesn’t appear anywhere on the menu, and they don’t have decaf. They do, however, have chai, four kinds of decaf herbal tea, and cinnamon raisin bagels with cream cheese–so I’m not gonna complain. If it isn’t Paradise, it’s a good first approximation. Life is not complete without bagels and cream cheese in the morning.
(Yes, Edouard, I can hear you complaining that it’s not a New York bagel. But this is Laos, OK? We’re not going to fly New York City water out to Laos just so you can have your bagels. (Silly New Yorkers.))
Okay, now that I’ve gotten my homesick-Westerner paeans out, it’s actually been a rather interesting time. I ran into a fellow traveler who suggested that I talk to UN AIDS, so I went there and had an hour-long conversation with the guy who heads up the UN AIDS country program for Laos. Really amazing. Basically, the AIDS rate in Laos is extremely low, but because of the rapid industrialization under way, it’s got the potential to explode–what is really interesting is looking at the way migration patterns have changed with the building of infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the onset of Thai investment. Also how the culture is changing as Laos attempts to move from a rural/subsistence farming to a trading economy. Too much to discuss here, but absolutely fascinating. I’m thinking about going into AIDS research professionally–it looks interesting, and up my alley.
I have also been networking around the various textile groups, with interesting results–two days ago I went to see a Japanese NGO group that is teaching village women to weave/dye with Lao natural dyes, for the Japanese market. They showed me their operation–I took lots of photos–and I offered some suggestions for how to market their center as a tourist attraction, with demos. (Not that I’m an expert on this by any means, but I’ve seen most of the major demo/sale areas in Thailand and Cambodia, so I can at least tell them how they set it up.)
Two days ago I also met with this really interesting French-Lao man who is setting up a business dyeing silk yarn with natural dyes–he wants to sell to the American/Canadian/Australian market, thinks there’s demand, but doesn’t have any contacts, and doesn’t know the market. His stuff is incredibly beautiful and I’m certain the American handweaving community would eat it right up, so I did a little networking by email yesterday–I think I’ve found the right distributor for him already, just waiting to hear back from them. (it’s amazing how well email works, if you know where to send it. 😉 ) I hope it works out, his stuff is beautiful and I want to get some. When I get back. My pack is already over 60 lbs and is way too heavy.
Yesterday, I spent with a woman named Dong (actually her nickname; it means “jump” in Lao, probably because she’s very energetic). She’s working with a Luxembourg NGO, but (as far as I can tell) is basically an agricultural extension agent in a neighboring province. She goes around to the villages and teaches the villagers about animal husbandry, agriculture, sericulture (silkworm rearing), and anything else she can think of to help them improve their economic conditions. But natural dyeing is her hobby and passion–she learned it from her mother, who is a traditional dyer and weaver–so when the folks at Lao Textiles told her I was interested, she very generously took me around town, showing me the Japanese natural dye center, and then invited me to her place to dye some skeins with her. So that was what I did yesterday.
Dong’s place is absolutely fascinating, at least to a weaver/dyer. She has an entire workshop going–piles of dyewoods, fruits, etc. all over the yard, looms in one corner, sewing machines and cutting tables in another. It’s essentially a small-scale training center–she uses it to train villagers from other provinces. (She also teaches textile arts to her neighbors–using them as “guinea pigs” for her curriculum. If they look confused, she knows she needs to change it before she goes out to the villages.) She also has a litter of adorable, roly-poly puppies and the usual scattering of chickens running about the yard.
(Brief aside: I have finally worked out the ubiquitous wicker baskets that seem to sprout in every rural Asian yard. These are half-spheres, about 4′ across, turned upside down, made of very open wickerwork–like the top half of a bird cage–and usually containing a chicken. I was baffled by these, since there are chickens running around loose all over Asia–why bother to confine one?–but it turns out that they’re not just chickens, they’re fighting-cocks. The cock is kept inside the cage to keep it from fighting with other cocks, and also to keep it where the owner can find it for training, fighting, etc. Unfortunately I can’t go see a cock-fight; apparently only men are allowed at them. As best I can tell, cock-fighting is the equivalent of Monday night football in Asia; the men get together, get roaringly drunk on beer and Lao whisky, and whoever’s cock loses has to buy the next round.
I will *not* make scatological commentary on this. I will *not* make scatological commentary on this. I will *not*…)
*ahem* (grin) Anyway, we got to her place and found a big metal bowl of silk yarn simmering on the fire–which was in a little concrete burner about 18″ across. She explained that it was being simmered to remove the protein–i.e. the sericin, a gum extruded by the silkworm that makes silk stiff and sticky–and would have to simmer for about forty minutes more. She poked a bit at the fire, added a little more wood, and stirred the silk with a clear glass soda bottle. (She explained to me that she only used glass soda bottles because they don’t absorb dye–the equivalent of the chemist’s glass rod.) Then she took me off to see the yard.
Pretty neat. There were a scattering of wood chips on the floor that I recognized immediately–yellowish wood, producing a strong yellow dye, that Noi, the textile expert in Chiang Mai, had shown to me. (“It’s from Laos…I don’t know what it is, or how to use it.”) It turns out they’re from the root of a big native vine that doesn’t have a name in English (at least, not one Dong knows)…we dyed with it at my request, so I could go back and show Noi how to use it. (Turns out it’s quite simple; mordant with alum in the same pot, and use double the weight of root to dyestuff.)
Dong also showed me a lot of other interesting dyestuffs–wood from the breadfruit tree (she has one in her yard), coconut husks, which produce a lovely pinkish brown, and a large pile of seedpods from the annatto tree. (Annatto, in case you didn’t know it, is the stuff used to dye butter yellow in the U.S.. Look on the ingredients list of your butter sometime. (If you want to know even more horrifying details, pink Snapple lemonade is dyed with cochineal–an insect that lives on prickly-pear cactus. “All-natural” isn’t always a good thing IMO.
Anyway, we poked at the silk for a bit longer–controlling the temperature of the burner turned out to be astonishingly easy. The fire was being fed by a long plank of wood, fed into the burner a few inches at a time–so for more heat, poke in more wood, for less heat, pull the board back out. I know that sounds stupidly simple–it is–but being used to electric and gas burners, I’d been wondering.
Dong showed me how to evaluate the silk by feeling it–if it’s slimy, it’s still got sericin and needs to simmer longer–and how to stir it with a combination of stick and glass bottle. Eventually the silk was finished, and we started rinsing it–four or five rinses to get it really clean. (Meanwhile, typically of Lao hospitality, they sent someone out for Lao coffee–basically, Thai iced coffee–and fed it to me until I was convinced I would never sleep again. Great stuff, but it’s got a major kick to it.)
While the dyebath was heating on the fire (only one burner; wood-fed; it takes as long as it takes, don’t worry about time), Dong showed me some of the intricate work her mother does–she does mudmee (tied-weft) weaving, and tying the patterns requires a great deal of skill. She showed me a very intricate piece of mudmee, stripes of complex patterning, including a repeating head of harvest-ready rice grains. Apparently nowadays, only old people can do patterns that complex. (She can tie simple pieces, but nothing like what her mother can.) I wish I’d asked her to show me how to use the looms–we had time, I just didn’t think of it.
She also showed me her natural dye samples. Amazing. We typically use indigo for blue–she said she could get seven colors out of indigo (!). She showed me a lovely lavender, from leaving fresh indigo leaves in water for three days, then boiling–and a beautiful silver gray that (honest) came from dumping a bottle of Lao whisky into a vat of indigo leaves and water, leaving it there for three weeks, then coming back and boiling it as a dyebath. She said it smelled awful, but the color was beautiful…
(I asked her how on earth she came up with the idea of dumping Lao whisky into a fermenting dyevat. She said it was a traditional recipe–leaving it for three weeks was her idea, since she got the indigo leaves just before heading out for the villages, and didn’t have time to do anythign with it. So she dumped them into water with whisky added, to deal with when she got back. Amazing what you discover by accident, eh?)
Oh, I forgot to mention–while I was poking around the sewing area, I found a snakeskin hanging up. A big one, untanned, about twelve feet long. I peeked at the scale pattern, and determined it was a reticulated python (this isn’t as hard as it sounds–the pattern is utterly distinctive). I asked Dong how she got it, and she explained that her brother had been off in the jungle, and they’d had a cage full of chickens for food. Apparently the snake got into the cage, ate the chickens, and then couldn’t get back out. So they ate the snake instead of the chickens.
(No, really. I’m serious. That’s what she said. 🙂 )
By the way, if you don’t remember what a reticulated python is, it’s the snake I found out of its cage in Bangkok. Fifteen to twenty feet long, biggest snake in the world, takes a couple people to handle it, nasty temper, (literally) eats small children. But I guess it tastes like chicken.
A brief aside on Lao whisky: it’s brewed by the farmers in about fifteen days, from glutinous rice (I think). A useful insight into its nature and applications can be derived by examining the bottle: it holds a quart, and there’s no way to close it once it’s open. Lao hospitality, I gather, involves getting seriously sloshed. Fortunately, I don’t think women are expected to do so. 😉
anyway, I need to run off–Dong said she’d bring me a set of yarn samples for an American shopkeeper who might be interested in buying, so i need to call her and arrange it. (She is also looking at setting up a business, but since she is a much more casual dyer I’ve been trying to connect her up to small shopkeepers, rather than major yarn distributors.)
oh! almost forgot. I’ve actually been using more languages here–I’ve encountered a few Lao who only speak French, and one or two who only speak Mandarin. It’s the first time I’ve had to use anything but English, since I started. 🙂