Sunday, January 18, 2009

Worse Than Violin


Luang Prabang, Laos - What could be worse than listening to someone trying to learn how to play the violin? You can probably think of many things worse, but for music, only the Oh-ee,* the two-stringed instrument of Laos, could sound worse, which even when it is played by an accomplished player, sounds raw and screechy.

Therefore, seeing as how the old lady next door is sick, I’ve limited my five-minute practice to around the noon hour, when she’s up from her mid-morning nap, before her mid-afternoon nap, and all the other guests are out of the house and on the street.

Last night after English class and leaving the temple grounds, just across the street at the Indochina restaurant, the old man Oh-ee player was coincidentally leaving, having wrapped up his evening performance for a German tour group, flocking after dinner in a confused cluster onto the street, blocking the entrance to the restaurant while trying to determine collectively which direction to proceed.

Upon invitation, the old man sat down for strong mud-like Lao coffee, and we sat for an hour, sharing spicy Lao salad and a pizza, while he talked the entire time, telling me…I’m not sure…something about his kids, I think, counting on his fingers and showing me four, pointing to one of the waitresses, who I took to be his daughter, his mistress, or maybe he was offering her to me, but I didn’t think so, something about his connection to the girl.

In fact, I didn’t understand a damn thing he said in an hour of conversation, not because he was talking too fast, which he was, but more so because I don’t understand Lao. I just kept nodding my head.

Upon leaving the restaurant, he motioned for me to follow him to his son’s house, where a group of six sat huddled under florescent lighting around a bottle of Johnnie Walker black which they insisted I share with them while the old man played his Oh-ee, surrounded by his three grandchildren.

Afterward, he walked his bicycle to the guesthouse, his Oh-ee in the bicycle basket, then said goodnight.

I’ve just about used up my visa here, having almost fully recovered from a month in Thailand. It is cold here in the mornings, and later in the afternoon when the sun slips behind the mountains, and many people such as me have come here without sufficient mountain weather attire. Fleece and hooded sweatshirts are a popular item at the night market, and in the mornings you see frosty and shivering Europeans sitting over coffee at the caf├ęs.

I don’t know what I was thinking, heading north to the mountains from the tropical beaches of south Thailand. I had packed proper tennis shoes from the USA, then removed them, considering them too heavy and unnecessary. Size 12? 13? ‘No hab. Ha. Ha. No hab.’ They always laugh when they tell me that.

I mean, who would have guessed there would be a pick up basketball game in Luang Prabang? Lao don’t even play basketball, do they? They’re only…this tall. Noi says she’s too short for UConn or Tennessee or the WNBA, laughing when I suggested it. Could the best women’s player in all of Laos hang on the court with the likes of Cynthia Parker?


“What is there to do here?” asked the two girls from Norway, just arrived.

“Well, at night, there’s the night market, right here on the street,” I told them. “And in the day you can go upriver to the Buddha caves or downriver to the waterfall, and that’s about it. And the temples.”

Indeed, that IS about all there is to do here, unless you just want to kick back and just be here. The young Frenchman who owns the internet coffee shop says the best time to be here is during the off-season, when all the tourists return home and things are quiet.

It’s the same in any tourist-oriented town or economy. There’s peak season, and then there’s the rest of the year, two totally different atmospheres. The same holds true in Estes Park, Colorado, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

In Estes Park, the ‘Gateway to the Rockies’, people close up their souvenir shops for the winter, and on the rez, we try to keep from freezing or going suicidal, just being there.

Maybe I should just speak for myself, but hey, c’mon. Pine Ridge in January? February?

I tell people the truth. I have to leave, for my physical and mental health. The rez is good for spirit. In the summer time.

Out on the restaurant lower balcony, lower than the street, but on stilts high above the river.

People sing here all the time. Softly to themselves, but out loud. Even the men. They laugh when you catch them, especially if you mimic holding a microphone and say, ‘Sing A Song’, their phrase for karaoke. Or if you put your hand over your heart, and sing, “I love you too mush.” Then they really laugh.

All the songs are the same. She’s in love, and her boyfriend has gone off to a foreign country, and she’s lovesick. She will die a slow death until he returns, because she loves him too much.

Nevva mind she’s only fourteen years old. He loves her too much.

Nevva mind he’s in prison, a stalking pedophile predator. She lub him too muuuuch. She will wait for him…if he gives her father some chickens and an ox; then buys her a bunch of new clothes, some jewelry, a motorbike, a car, a van, a house, and sets her up in business, her dream restaurant and a travel agency, and takes care of her family. Otherwise, she will leave him for someone who will. After all that, since everything is in her name, he can go. Unless, of course, she lub him too much.

That may sound cynical. It’s not like that here. Yet. I’m talking about Thailand.

And that’s why single adult retired western males are natural targets for taxi drivers and karaoke bar girl whores. We have a neon sign blinking, “Pick on me. I’m a sucker.”

“Helloooooooooo Mistahhhhh.”

I shouldn’t say that. It’s not that bad. Well……yes it is. It’s worse than Oh-ee practice.


*picture a coconut on the end of a stick, and a couple of strings. It’s more sophisticated than that, of course, with a bridge, tuning pins, and snakeskin drumhead on a short, 3-inch diameter cylindrical wooden tube, or a coconut.

You hold it upright on your upper thigh with the mouth facing outward, holding the neck about two thirds up along your palm, between your thumb and index finger, so that you can use four fingers on the strings to change the…pitch? The sound.

You saw across the two strings with the bow, same same violin bow, but the strings are inside the two strings of the Oh-ee (they call it that because of the sound it makes…or ‘Oh-oh’), thus producing four possible notes. In and out on one string, and same same on the other, making an AWWWWWWW AWWWWWWWW kind of sound.

It’s horrible when listening to someone who doesn’t know the first thing about playing it, like any instrument, huh, but it’s beautiful when played by an accomplished musician, especially in accompaniment with other players, making up an ‘Oh-ee section’ with other Lao instruments.

I should be…can I somehow transfer audio files to?…sure. Sure you can. You can transfer anything. It occurred to me when that Dane popped up, shooting the pre-sunset-over- the-river perspective I earlier described to you, then headed out to climb Mt. Phousi for the actual sunset after quickly giving me his blog address, that maybe I should be shooting photos and posting them on this blog. I am a photographer, after all. Used to be. Coulda been. Coulda been somebody if I’d stayed with it.

A teacher would be required to run me through the procedure, the mechanics of…you know…going to the store, buying a digital…something…a phone?...a camera?...a digital SLR?...some kinda robot? And then they’d have to talk me through it, getting the pichers to you.

Same with audio.

Then I could be sort of ‘up to speed’, as they say. The note to my parents often read, ‘is not performing up to potential.’

A flower blossom just fell from this tree and landed on the keyboard. I’m sitting on the roots, those long, thin, tall jungle roots that almost make it look like this thing’s alive.

Three kids show up. One of them goes shinnying up a thirty-foot coconut tree and drops a couple coconuts, hugging the tree and taking two breaks before reaching the branches.

A boat pulls up, offloading two squealing pigs, a lady in a conical hat with two baskets balanced on a shoulder stick, and a dozen bundles of firewood that five guys make two trips to bring up the embankment to an awaiting cyclo-taxi.

These are common sights. Mia, on her first trip, cried out, pointing, “Look! Coolies!” at a half dozen people working a rice field. Lookitdat. Lookitdat. That’s why all these folks are shooting photos. I would rather bring you here with words.

-the real end, and I do mean it, this time.