May 29, 2010


on this trip i have cried several times. not because of the poverty or substandard living conditions but by the ways humans can torture each other. the senseless deaths during the nonviolent civil disobedience in Bangkok, the elephants, reading First they Killed my Father and now visiting the bombed corridor of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. next week Cambodia.

i go to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars but find myself in the most bombed area of the most bombed country in the world. the amount of bombs dropped here and the ongoing impact defies imagination. i had heard of the mine fields before and the 'secret war' in Laos.  i did not know that the presence of the uxo has created a vicious cycle that will continue for generations. it goes like this: uxo limits the amount of farmable land because breaking new ground equals farmers getting blown up; which leads to a shortfall in feeding their families; which leads to the collection of scrap metal and uxo; which leads to death or dismemberment. as we drive in there is a moment of panic in my mind as i am filled with the dread of coming face to face with children missing limbs but i don't see any the whole time i am in Laos.

i book a tour of the jar sites and i have an hour to kill so i ask the organizers to pick me up in front of a market i had seen about a kilometer down the road. they agree and i ask which van to look for and who is the driver. they laugh and laugh and laugh then say there will not be a problem to find me because i will be the only westerner there.

the jar sites are phenomenal. huge 2500 year old stone jars that are scattered around this area. the few sites that have been cleared of mines are outlined with white markers. no one ventures outside the lines here. at one site we are crossing through rice paddies and BOOM a bomb is detonated somewhere in the valley. it is so loud everyone reacts. the NGO mag [mine advisory group] has a storefront in town and runs documentaries and provides information on the uxo [unexploded ordinance]. they do a good job but the blame is placed fully on the US and if the US government is providing any support to help clear mines it is not mentioned.

our guide stops between sites to show us a home where they make rice whisky. the family at this house is celebrating because one of their sons is going to live at a monastery the next day. the boy is about 12 and he gets a couple of shots as well they pass around the bottle of Lao Lao. 

they have killed a pig and the red stuff in the bowl is the blood they are eating with the pig intestine. they offer everyone to try and when it is my turn i say i am a vegetarian. our tour guide gets drunk [that's not water in the bottle] and tells dirty asian jokes all afternoon. there is also this weird thing he does when he sees a centipede at one of the sites. he tortures it and it’s so disturbing how he does it that several of the guys speak up and tell him to leave it alone.

after we get back into town a couple of us hire a tuk tuk out to a silk farm. the guy [not the centipede torturer] showing us down a path to the mulberry trees jumps back and says there is a snake. you can guess how i react. well the guy picks up a stick and pokes it then starts to beat it when it moves. the stick breaks and he gets another larger bamboo stick that is like 4 inches in diameter and beats the snake brutally. it's bizzare.  we never get an answer on whether it was poisonous but perhaps it was and he wanted to protect the kids running around barefoot. anyway, i’ve never been to a silk farm before and these trays are filled with silkworms that the girl is feeding the mulberry leaves.

i would like to say something poetic now about the resilience of the people here and how they are happy anyway but in fact that is not what i find. perhaps it is that this is one of the poorest countries in the world but i have another theory. communism doesn’t work at this level and the identification the Plain of Jars as a potential world heritage site has resulted in a huge influx of money into an area that is not accustomed to any disposable income. the people here have electricity and now satellite dishes and they can see what is out there and they want them some of it.

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