Sunday, 8 June 2008

Lao, leeches and men who wear the blouse in this household!

As we approach the border with Laos, and thus begin to experience increasingly hotter and stickier weather conditions, we notice a distinct increase in the amount of creepie-crawlies inhabiting various parts of our hotel and hostel rooms. In this way, I learn that Athole is a total and utter big girl's blouse when it comes to beasties. We are peacefully reading in our twin beds one night when from my right there is a high-pitched shriek and a flurry of movement. When I look round, Athole has hauled the bedclothes up to his neck and is curled up in a ball, eyes wide with fear and horror. The cause of this is a fairly innocent looking cricket, which has strayed out of the bathroom recess it was previously inhabiting and jumped onto Athole's sheet. I dispatch the cricket with a handy flip-flop; Athole breathes again; then he jumps as a large moth flutters past his ear.

So you can imagine the reaction when I casually mention that, in a few days time, we will probably be meeting a few leeches. We spend 20 minutes looking at pictures of leech bites on the internet, by which point, judging by the colour of Athole's face, he wouldn't make a decent meal for any blood-sucking creature.
We have signed up for a 3 day trek through the northern jungle ares of Laos, on a tour of ethnic minority villages. The project running the trip is an ecotourism organisation which ensures that the villages benefit directly from the profits made on the trek - only companies like this are permitted to run tours here - giving local people a direct incentive to preserve their traditions, culture and environment. The blurb and graph charts of how your cash is used at the office are pretty convincing, but if we needed any further reassurance it comes in the form of a French development worker who is running an assessment of the tours for the company and joins our trek, and a Canadian anthropologist following the same trek, but stopping more frequently to do interviews with the villagers. Both approve heartily of the scheme.
When we start the first climb, up a steep hill towards a temple, we have a not-too tough 6 hour walk ahead of us - or so we thought. Our guide makes a few jokes about leeches - hahaha, we all join in. An hour later, we are literally sprinting through sections of the forest as our guide yells "don't stop: if stop too many come!" Leeches are everywhere. And they're not the black, slug-like creatures we'd imagined. These are like vertical worms that sit on the forest floor, practically invisible against the camouflage of leaves and mulch, and then hook on to you as you walk past. The trick is to spot them and flick them off your boots or trouser leg before they work their way inside your clothing and attach themselves to your skin. By the time we stop for lunch at a mercifully leech-free waterfall, we're getting pretty adept at sucker dispatching. But then I scratch the back of my leg and make a gruesome discovery - one of the little bleeders has made its way up my thigh and is happily feasting away - aargh!
In the end, all I am left with was a round, red hole on the back of my leg - not much of a war wound really. But it's a fairly disgusting experience - leeches put an anti-coagulant into your blood, so the bite keeps bleeding even after your guide has scrabbled up your trouser leg and detached the leech. Oh, and leech fear means we complete the trek in half the given time.
The trek is amazing, though hot and sticky all the way through. That's partially because we are lugging extra baggage in the form of books, pens and pencils as gifts for school children in the villages we are visiting. There is an excellent project that's just started work in the last 2 years in Laos, called Big Brother Mouse. It produces and sells bilingual (English and Lao) books for kids and encourages tourists to buy them as presents for people at home or to give to people here as a tip or a gift. Literacy is a real problem in Laos and many children have never owned a book - some have never read one. So we stock up before we leave the main town, and give a parcel of books to each of the villages we eat and sleep in.
Sleeping in the villages is very comfortable - we are housed in specially built lodges, that are similar in design to the traditional wooden houses: there's an open plan interior with simple mattresses on the floor and a fire in the middle of the hut. However, there's a luxury bit at the back with a proper toilet and hot shower - better than some of the guesthouses we've been in. Eating is a slightly different matter. Sticky rice comes with every meal, which is fine, and there's lots of green vegetables, including one that smells - well, frankly, like an eggy fart - before it's cooked but is surprisingly tasty with spicy chicken soup. So far so good on the first day, and we ask our guide lots of questions about all the food people here eat. He tells us about the rice fields and about going frog catching at night. "I'm going tonight!" he cries. "Hahaha," we all laugh. Haven't we learned yet that he's not really joking?
Sure enough, when breakfast appears the next morning, it's frog and eel soup. Not so bad if you stick to the legs and peel the frog (they're boiled whole) but our guide eates them in one go; head first, spitting out the larger bones. Luckily there's a bit of omelette on the side, though we both manage most of a frog.
We're back in the city now - or at least that 's what people in Laos call it. It's got one main street, a market and lots of guesthouses and restaurants, plus a bus station. What more do you need for a city? Athole is delighted.

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