Thursday, July 7, 2011

Searching for the Puzzle Pieces

I travel to see how other people live their lives in places profoundly different from where I live my own. It's a form of voyeurism, as well as the most seductive kind of drug that I have ever experienced. My earlier stay in a hotel designed for tour groups on overnight stays had left me completely clueless about life in Savannakhet, but this time the town plaza was practically my front yard. As I sipped coffee in the early morning sunlight, a woman of my vintage came out with a tub of food scraps for a cluster of dogs and across the way another woman bearing food was greeted expectantly by a feline family. Small children swooped about on their bicycles like swallows on wheels as several monks filed past them rather cautiously. A young man pulled himself down the street near the sidewalk; sitting on the ground, he propelled himself forward using the only leg he had. He looked at me with dull eyes as I pushed a banknote into one of his hands.

At a lovely little refuge called Lin's Cafe, I had found a surprising selection of leaflets for travelers, in English, with thumbnail photos and clear, simple maps. Although sightseeing isn't my favorite diversion, I am besotted with Khmer ruins and the Savannakhet area had two, far enough away to let me see a bit of the countryside if I went to them. And, the young woman who ran the cafe told me, the gorgeous church near the plaza offered Mass every Sunday. I'd avoided Catholicism strenuously for almost fifty years but Mass in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos was too enticing to pass up.

It was hard for me to tell what was making me more euphoric--the sunlight that had been elusive for months in Bangkok yet flooded the leaves of Savannakhet's trees with translucent light, or the privileged status of being the Sala Savanh's only guest? Or was it breakfast in the garden sala, coffee in a china pot and a baguette wrapped in a white cloth, two small bananas sliced with a mandoline to create elegant serrated edges and drizzled with dark honey? Or was it the small puzzle that was Savannakhet, a post-colonial river town with an affluent side to its decaying grandeur? New cars were parked in front of large, freshly painted modern villas; several stores had a profusion of refrigerators and washing machines for sale, and Cafe Chez Boune in the morning was filled with prosperous- looking men wearing white shirts, speaking Chinese and drinking leisurely cups of coffee.

On my second morning, I heard voices singing from within the church and took my place in one of the pews. Nuns dressed in white, beautifully groomed men, women and children, an adult male acolyte in white robes and a priest with green vestments sang the Mass in Lao, a symphony of prayer and response. Parishioners read the Gospels in Laos and Vietnamese, a nervous young teenage girl taking her turn at the lecturn. The line for Communion was headed by the nuns, followed by old women, then the younger, and finally the men. An echo of Buddhist and Hindu ritual pervaded the church at the beginning of the Mass, when the priest walked down the center aisle of the church, sprinkling water on the kneeling congregants from a bundle of green leaves dipped in a silver bowl of water held by the acolyte. A breeze wafted through open shutters from one side of the church to the other, keeping the interior cool and an open door tempted small children from the pews to play under the trees nearby.

When I walked down a small and quiet street back to the Sala Savanh, I passed a row of people on the opposite side of the street, in the shade of a decrepit building, each of them eating an ice cream cone. One of them greeted me and assured me that my sunny side of the street was too hot. "I like heat," I said and then asked if their ice cream was delicious. The overall assessment was that it was very good indeed. Not the sort of dialogue that Noel Coward would kill for, but nice and pleasant and for me completely Savannakhet--a place where I speak more Thai in three days than I do in three months in Bangkok, simply because I'm not politely ignored.

In Thailand when I say something in Thai, I usually get The Look, a mixture of incomprehension, boredom and condescension. In Savannakhet when I say something in Thai, I get a look of surprised delight and then a conversation, as basic as it may be. A crucial part of life falls into place for me here; I like this town, I decided.


Kristianne said...

Your portrait is so compelling. I'll have to find a way to get there. Where did you stay?

janet brown said...

Sala Savanh Guesthouse--terrific and lovely--google for pictures.