Fall From Sky
Luang Prabang, Laos – You have to admit, sometimes things just fall from the sky. And often, it isn’t as expected, although not altogether unexpected. Am I talking in riddles, or does it sound like it makes any sense to you.*
After a mandatory afternoon nap, I went down to the corner intersection, a focal point of pedestrian activity and Lao food vendors, the entrance to the utterly fascinating night market, looking to eat again at the same vegetarian…mostly, because there’s chicken on a stick there…outdoor eatery, where she was serving a buffet of white and yellow noodles, rice, boiled potatoes, yams, greens, yellow bean, green beans, pasta, grilled fish, fried potatoes, spring rolls, pineapple, steamed cauliflower with mushrooms, and a couple other items in large bowls and trays. 5,000 kip per bowl, about fifty cents.
To the left is an identical place to the one just described. Directly across the street are two booths of CD sales, blaring Lao pop music. Diagonally across the street are fruit shake vendors, a lady selling large knive blades of all shapes and sizes, next to a traditional herb vendor, next to a Lao coffee vendor, and the beginning of an endless sea of humanity stretching for about a mile, overwhelming the farang tourists with a repetition of Lao fabric, silver, and everything else under the sun.
The booths are so closely set, five feet of walking space, that by design, traffic cannot move in two directions without turning sideways to allow people to pass. The couple squatting with their backpacks, negotiating over a scarf, brought traffic to a complete standstill. The Japanese couple finally realized they couldn’t walk shoulder to shoulder. It’s single file here, sir.
Back at the intersection, tuk tuk and motorbike traffic form a steady flow around a roundabout with a large brightly lit cone-shaped Christmas tree, I guess, in the middle of it. There are maybe a couple hundred people milling around right there in the immediate vicinity.
I know it’s lengthy, almost to the point of boredom, but I’m trying to set the scene, y’know, put you there with me. It’s dark. It’s getting cool. You’ll want a jacket.
On the way down to this press of high season mainline infusion into the local economy, I tried to remember the sun dancer’s ethos, refusing nearly everything the tuk tuk drivers had to offer, respond to critical mass, and above all, keep your eyes peeled for what might fall from the heavens.
You just never know.
So I’m sitting there, bowl piled not too high, because I already planned to return for seconds, and swallowed my pride and mustered enough gumption to ask Tomo, the Japanese girl from Yakamoto who was sitting alone at an adjacent table, to join me, since I detest eating alone.
To my shock, she came over and sat down, and we ate together, mostly not understanding one another at all in the ensuing conversation, but it seemed like the food was excellent. She had a nice laugh, happy eyes, and a pleasant smile.
It was the fourth time since November that I had dinner company; once with Ashley in Bangkok, whom I met in the smoking room at the airport in Japan; twice in Vientiane at a Lao birthday party, and later, New Years dinner with the guesthouse staff; and this time. That’s eating a lot of meals alone much of the time, so I can appreciate sitting across from a smile. The food is always better.
If you stay here long enough, two things are bound to happen; you’re going to get pretty good with chopsticks, and you’ll at some point, have an Asian person on the back of your motorbike.
If you stay here really long, you can end up with an Asian person on the back, and a bi-racial child sitting up front between your knees. You see it all the time. Lucky for me that my motorbike is parked inside my house in Khuk Khak, because cross-cultural relationships can be intriguing, but extremely problematic.
And if at times it seems like the material is disconnected, that’s because the lines form inside my head while I’m walking down the street. That’s the way it always happens, and behind the wheel of a chevy truck. I can’t help it. They just form. What more can I say? Doesn’t happen anywhere else. Except, like, right now.
So after that dinner, I was experiencing a general sense of blissful well-being and just sort of drifting down the sidewalk and sort of got pulled magnetically up the stairs to the temple, with those big dragons coming down either side of the step entrance, and got up on the plaza, and there amongst the smaller stupas and relics, and bell and drum, and prayer room, I thought of meandering around the larger wat, wat That Noy. Half moon directly overhead. It was peaceful up there, away from all the hectivity down on the street.
I know it’s not a word, but it sure fits, doesn’t it?
About halfway through a circumvention of the temple, I saw a shadow in the form of a monk approaching me from behind, and thought, ‘This guy is going to mug me,’ but that wasn’t the case at all. He wanted to talk.
We walked around the temple, then stood until my knees could no longer take it, then sat on the temple steps, then went over to the table and benches, then finally said good night at the top of the steps leading down to the sidewalk after a two-hour discussion about karma.
Oh yes, there was much more, but I needed to wrap up that sentence. Generally, it was about karma, and suffering in the world, and orphans and cripples and refugees and everybody with their personal experience with suffering, all attributable to karma.
"Do you know what goes around, comes around?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied. "But sometimes you love, and love no come back."
He grew silent at that point, then told me about his past. We also had an English lesson, a dharma lesson, a personal history exchange, talk of fortune tellers, purification of heart and mind, awakening, rebirth, and amazingly open self-disclosure.
He told me his age, and when I expressed shock and disbelief, he laughed and told me another. “I can do that,” he said, “because I can stand the truth. When people do bad, they cannot stand the truth.”
He also told me what a monk can and cannot do (can’t dance, can’t play basketball or tennis, can’t eat after 12 noon, among many other cannots; and the four meditations; sitting, dreaming, walking, and…..and….I’ll have to get back to you on that fourth one…and a discussion about how sometimes love does not come back in the way we want it or expect it, but sometimes comes to us in ways that we sometimes cannot see.
I wanted to tell him that we dance our prayer, then try to walk our prayer, but it would have required a lengthy explanation involving feathers and eagle bone whistles, and I was more interested in his story than telling mine.
He said he’d come from the northeast, and had been there at the temple for five years. A fortune teller just today had told him he’d be there for another seven. For the last ten minutes of our conversation, while exchanging email addresses, we were joined by a young kid, probably about eight years old, a little ‘old man/boy,’ I told him, who just sat there grinning and setting his alarm clock for 4 a.m., when they awake for morning meditation.
“Sometimes the monk do not want to wake up,” said my friend.
And sometimes the farang does not want to wake up, either. I thought of rising early this morning to 'feed the monks' and look for my two friends in the procession, making eye-contact and a warm smile, but instead, I slept in.
* Well…the reason is, because sometimes you don’t need question marks with an interrogatory in a lead.