Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Saffron Hue


Luang Prabang, Laos – Don’t you just love that dateline? I do. Check it out on the map. I know several of you are intimately aware of exactly where I am, while others haven’t the vaguest idea. I hope you’re prompted to look.

This is the place Kennedy said was a hotspot for the red scare, and Mad Magazine made jokes about gorillas marching on the Plain of Jars.

Some of you could name several of the 49 ethnic hill tribes, lovely folks, and their provinces and rivers. But the mother of all rivers in this region, the Mekong, third largest in the world (after the Amazon and the Nile), is the reason this city is here, nestled in a mountainous valley, accessible by water, air, and horrendous winding overland passage.

This ancient imperial capital of the whatchamacallit empire…Khmer empire, and then Lan Xang, has the look and feel of a worn down has-been prize fighter meeting up against the reigning champ, with weary wooden dilapidated houses and faded pastel French colonial buildings smeared with black mold, clashing into digital, cellular, gourmet, brand spanking new hundred bucks a night stay, party of eight for dinner.

This place is hopping, a beehive of economic growth and activity. If there’s something wrong with global financial markets, it isn’t in evidence here. Accordingly, it is losing much of its charm, but that can be found. You just have to get off the tourist track.


Just so turns out that the daughter of the lady who runs this guesthouse is the ace point guard for the Luang Prabang women’s basketball team, thus the gold medals up there on the wall. She scored about half her team’s points, grabbed some boards and had three or four or five steals in two games against a Canadian team and me, full court, over at the high school outdoor court.

Our team had four girls from a high school in Canada, just graduated, their brother, the red head kid from Ireland last night, except he’s from Canada, two other guys whose main interests were hockey and lacrosse, and the dad of the red head and his sister, Arnie, all of whom have an interest in a local orphanage, and connections in some kind of international exchange.

I sat with Arnie having coffee (he'd gotten up early to feed the monks), openly wondering why governments such as the Thai and the Lao, must depend on NGOs and high school kids from Canada to accomplish a mission, like foreign organizations and individuals taking more interest in Native Americans than their own people and government.

Arnie said, ‘yeah,’ and that it was the same in Canada, and somehow the conversation flipped over into basketball, and one coincidence led to another, and we ended up in a challenge match with Noi, who materialized while we were talking about her.

Two games to ten. I forget the scoring system and didn’t care…they had some little girl keeping score on the sideline with a small piece of white chalk…I got to start, but quickly called for a sub the first few times up and down the court, wearing flip-flops as well, and praying my knees wouldn’t buckle out there, a full 90 ft. regulation court...I couldn’t even see the other end.

Since we had a nine-person team, so I didn't want to bogard the court time, but the real reason I yanked myself out of the game was because of the absence of air in my lungs, and my oxygen-starved thighs.

They didn’t blow us out. It was close. I cuffed a girl’s shot down in the paint at one point early in the game, hollering, “NO! GET THAT SHIT OUTTA HERE!”, or, it was more like under my breath…out loud it came out as, “Sorry, Honey!” after she snatched an offensive board and tried to put it back up in my face. I had to laugh. She was about 4 ft. 2".

One of the remarkable things about the game…perhaps the first time in my life…there were only two fouls in two games. Not one curse. A game without anger. Not one dispute or argument. Pure joy and exhilaration.

Which reminds me of one of the best all-time lines on a basketball court: “We don’t call no fouls down here. We call a ambulance,” spoken by a brother on a court in Memphis, TN, 1977.

Everybody shook hands (after the customary wai) and was laughing after the game, their player/coach feeling satisfied with her team’s performance, grinning over there, saving face. They all had green uniforms with numbers, and shoes. I think we could take them in a rematch. We had a lot of passing turnovers and never shut down their shooters.

But we looked good on the fast break, getting several 3 on 2, and 2 on 1 opportunities that we never could finish, blowing the layup, missing the baby shot, looking bad, losing face. We could’ve used some practice.

Like many of my teachers said of me throughout my education, we didn’t perform up to our potential. I shot one for one, no boards, one assist, no steals, one block, no turnovers. Pretty much a non-factor out there, but the most enthusiastic.

In the van on the way to the court, Noi in uniform and smiling at the wheel, loaded with Canadian teens, I told Arnie as I massaged my knees, “I hope we’re playing half-court.”


Ooops. This was supposed to be a story about the monks and the temples, not a basketball game with a bunch of vertically challenged Lao girls.

There are several famous temples in this city. Mt. Phousi, Wat That Noy, Wat Huoaxieng, just here in the neighborhood. There are several more. Guys come here from all over the country to become novices, monks-in-training; the younger ones, walking midday with their umbrellas, appearing self-conscious in their new saffron robe attire, some of the teenagers still eyeing the girls or being overly serious and self-absorbed, the older monks disregarding the foreigner entirely, while others will meet your gaze and return the smile.

And what would have a young man feel a calling to ‘go to the temple’, after being born in such a place as predilected by the state of his spiritual development, to be called to prayer twice a day to send out a spiritual blanket upon this city, its inhabitants, and the world.

If that’s what they do. Who knows what’s going on inside a person’s head, meditation or not? But with the training, whatever it is, it’s supposed to be focused. And over there at the wat, it’s collectively focused, like at the tree at sun dance, or in your church. We can’t assume that we’re all praying for the same things, like the end of an administration, or the return of Jesus or something.

But because all of the wats and the omnipresent monks, since the beginning of time here, despite the frenetic mercantilism, the city has maintained a quiet contemplative atmosphere, a saffron hue cast across the city, as quiet as the river, as subdued as the Buddha’s gaze.