Over the river

Yesterday I took a muddy walk. The mountains around Luang Prabang are too beautiful to simply look at—I have to get out into them. Even when the sky hangs low and grey and the jungle around the city has that glow that says rain is coming.

So my walk in the hills between two villages on the other side of the river was a slippery and sticky one. It was dry when I flagged down a boat driver to take me to the pretty little village on the other side of the river and as I exchanged numbers with him so I could call him when I wanted to be picked up (no advance payment needed—there’s a nice level of trust here, at least most of the time). It didn’t rain while I scrambled up the narrow dirt path from the boat landing to the village, or while I asked directions from the first family I came across, what looked like four generations all eating together and all eager to give me directions to my destination. The sun actually shone for a few minutes while I marched up the main (dirt) road, lined with market stalls selling grilled fish and polyester shoulder bags. The rain held off as I turned onto the smaller, red-clay track that would take me to the village an hour away that was my destination.

It was just about when I ran into a group of men at a bend in the road, under the shelter of a tall, broad-leaved tree, trying to convince some recalcitrant water buffalo to climb into their truck, that it started to drizzle a bit. I got a smile as big as an upside down umbrella from one of the buffalo-wranglers, but no actual water protection as I walked out from the shade of the tree into the first light drops. It was sprinkling when I found the abandoned pomelo grove, spindly trees dangling huge green globes in a clearing between the path and the river. And it was just a gentle mist when three children came running out of their gate to ask me who I was and where I was going and what I was doing.

Jon, Nang, and Lat, three sisters, walked with me to the village as the rain stopped and started and refused to make up its mind. I practiced my Lao and they giggled. We went through the standard questions—“How old are you?” “Where do you live?” “Are you married?” They laughed at my mud-covered shoes and I envied their bare feet. They stopped every few meters along the trail to point out a plant they might pick to eat later. They told me they liked to draw with colored pencils.

Walking in Luang Prabang

We reached the school as the sky grew darker, and they pushed open the wooden shutters to show me their simple classrooms. They grabbed a bit of chalk from the windowsill and we practiced writing in Lao. They wrote their names, I wrote mine. I asked them how to write numerals in Lao, but they didn’t seem to know. Maybe it’s not taught anymore.

We left the schoolhouse and they picked flowers from the hibiscus and marigold plants along the narrow path leading to the school gate and gave them to me. They turned to go play with friends and I turned back toward Luang Prabang with flowers in my hair. The rain finally came down, on me, on the girls, on the workers, their fathers and brothers, putting up another house in the village, on the old man who grinned as I trudged by, and taught me the word for “muddy” in Lao. It’s a very nourishing season, if you stay out in it.