Sally is the Founder and President of Laos Solidarity and has her base in the library at Luang Prabang. She works with a local team to provide an outreach programme which educates teachers and the communities on hygiene and well being. She also fully supports trained staff and activities at Pakzeng Community Learning Centre. The town is about two hours drive north of Luang Prabang and she had arranged for us to visit. It was a special day for everyone involved.
We left early and wound our way through villages, following the river. Sally had told us that a visit by a group of ‘falangs’ or foreigners was a major event in the community’s life and big preparations were underway.
The children were all waiting when we arrived. After the official greeting and various stomachs had settled after the windy road, we split into groups with pairs of us conducting activities with the children, an interesting exercise given the lack of a common language. Angela and I taught our group how to sew a felt purse. We had come prepared with supplies brought from home as there was nothing available in Laos. Pieces of felt, needles, thread, buttons and scissors had all found a place in my suitcase. I was expecting to teach the children from scratch but all of them knew how to stitch, including one very serious small boy with a broken arm. Skills varied though! Several girls (and the boy) made two purses and Sally told me later that the girls had taught all the other children at the community centre how to make them so every child was in proud possession of a purse. Lucky I had taken extra supplies!
After the activities, we had lunch. Sally had brought us sandwiches and the children all had noodle soup which she assured us we wouldn’t like (too much chilli!). Usually, they went home for sticky rice at lunch time but we had paid for their lunch as it was a special occasion.
There was high excitement afterwards as the children dressed in their traditional, mostly Hmong, costumes to entertain us with dancing. The noise levels escalated as the mothers (and the odd privileged ‘falang’) did their daughters’ hair and all important makeup whilst the boys ran wild. At last the show began!
A boy and girl compered and after each dance commented on how good the dancing was. As usual, there were one or two smaller children who stole the show. They encouraged us to join them in one dance. Dancing is not my forte, and I felt very wooden and ungraceful as I attempted to get arms and legs co-ordinated.
Before we left, we took part in a baci ceremony. The modern shaman arrived late on his motorbike and then had a conversation on his mobile phone. There was obviously no urgency! A large percentage of the population practices animism and the baci is a blessing ceremony in which they make offerings of food to the gods. Long strands of cotton string are tied around the wrists of the people being blessed.
This meant all of us had two wrists full of string at the end as every woman and child went around the room tying them on to us. They told us to wear them for three days after which time we could remove them (but not by cutting as this was bad luck). The offerings were distributed amongst everyone once the ceremony finished. Hard-boiled eggs seemed to be popular and I’m sure the additives in the commercial packets left the children high! Once the ceremony had finished, we took our leave and headed back to Luang Prabang.
On the way, we detoured to a weaving village. Each house had a loom outside but, as it was Saturday, nobody was working. However, once we arrived, and they knew we wanted to buy cloths, ladies emerged with their wares and several of us went home with our bags full.
A big thunderstorm was underway in Luang Prabang as we drove in. We completed the day with dinner and a beer at a local cafe dubbed No Name Cafe (for obvious reasons). It was a fitting end to an excellent day.