Day 144: Pushing timelines for festivals
It was the last Night Market before the main parade for the Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Josh Woodward
WE'LL be facing a serious time crunch if we stay an extra day in Luang Prabang, but the final day of the Festival of Lights – the one we've all been waiting for – is not on the 16th as everyone was claiming only ten days ago, it's on the 17th.
Outside our room, Andy informs us that today marks the first day of high season, so the rate for our room is going up.
“But it includes breakfast,” he adds. It feels a bit shitty to have your room rate jump after only one night at Manhichan Guesthouse, but what can you do?
“So do you want to stay in this room or move to a queen-size bed?” Andy asks as he fetches Jess and me a coffee. “Milk or sugar?”
I look at Jess, who says the room we have is fine.
Andy's bustling about making sure each guest is enjoying their breakfast and had a comfortable night's stay. One of his daughters, a beautiful little girl who is maybe six years old, comes into the back courtyard in tears.
“I can't find my flower ring,” she loudly cries.
Andy rushes over to her, picking her up underneath her arms as she cries out again about the lost ring.
“I'm asking you to stop crying right now and I'll help you. People are sleeping in this house,” Andy says in a sharp, quite voice.
Still carrying the crying girl in his arms, he heads across the street to his other guesthouse to help her look for the ring.
“Want to grab breakfast somewhere?” I ask Jess, as breakfast wasn't included in last night's fee.
Jess, who is perpetually up for having food, is more than happy to accompany me down to Saffron Coffee, which occupies one of the many lovely French-colonial buildings along the Mekong riverfront.
Momentarily lost in the text on the little flag attached to the toothpick stabbed into my bagel sandwich, the rest of the world ceases to exist.
“The bagel you are eating contains toasted cascara (coffee cherry skin). This part is removed during the processing of the coffee. It's a super healthy 'found food' (something previously considered a waste product)!,” the label reads.
Fun facts: gram for gram cascara has more iron than spinach, more fiber than coconut flour, more antioxidants than pomegranates, more protein than kale and more potassium than banana.
Saffron Coffee is the sort of forward thinking company that makes the yuppy Millennial in me want to hand over one of my parents credit cards: on the lightly stained wooden walls upstairs hang big pictures of individual Laos coffee growers with whom Saffron is working. The info graphics give us their name, age, number of children and how many coffee trees they've planted.
Standing over our little table is the thin Chinese girl with thick framed glasses that I met at the airport while waiting for Jess yesterday.
“What are you doing here?”
“Grabbing a coffee. Then thinking about getting on the motorcycle and driving out to some of the coffee plantations to get drone footage.”
“Really? You have a drone? Let me introduce you to the manager, Derek. Maybe he can show you around.”
I excuse myself from the table, leaving Jess to her sandwich and latte to go downstairs to meet Derek.
Derek is a tall middle-aged man with an athletic build and a thick wedding band who's slumped over a Mac that sits on the wooden coffee bar.
The Chinese girl, Xu, is studying heritage tourism in Luang Prabang and is helping host some French architect during the next couple of days. However, after bouncing around when it would be possible to go see the coffee plantations, we land on today.
“Let's do this. We can meet back here at let's say 11. I'll bring the van and take everyone out to see one of the plantations,” Derek offers.
Upstairs, I can hardly contain my excitement.
“Jess, can you believe it? Just because I have the drone, he's giving us a private tour of one of the coffee plantations. I hope you don't mind that I agreed to do it.”
Jess orders a sandwich to go before we all pile into a silver van. I sit up front with Derek, taking on the roll of a journalist, while Jess, Xu and Xu's mother, who's visiting, climb into the back.
Ever since taking Professor Catherine Tucker's course on the anthropology of coffee at Indiana University, I've had a deep respect for the cash crop and its ability to transform an entire nation's economy and impact its culture. When examining the current political situations in Central America, it's possible to trace the roots of development back to how each of the countries handled the production of coffee during the colonial era.
“It's all small-batch, organic, shade-grown, highland Arabica,” Derek is explaining. “We work with individual farmers rather than co-ops. So many NGOs and government initiatives start projects, such as getting farmers to grow coffee, but then fail to provide the necessary structure for the supplies to be sold on – they only do part of the job. We're establishing and growing out a complete system that focuses on taking care of the local farmers.”
When Saffron is approaching farmers in a village there are more than governmental hoops to jump through, as they also have to demonstrate to the village headman how the process works and why it will be good for the community. Without his support, Saffron is unable to get any farmers on board with their project.
Part of the deal with teaming up with Saffron is that the farmers are contractually obligated to only sell to Saffron. In return, Saffron provides instruction on how to grow the plants according to certain requirements, provides saplings and guarantees a price for the harvested cherries.
The van has come to a stop in bumper to bumper traffic on Highway 13 as we approach the Nam Khan River. Trash litters the side of the road where the grass has been pounded into the dust that covers vendors stalls, which are selling food, drinks and garden variety Southeast Asia festival items at the boat racing event at hand.
Creeping forward, a truck pushes in ahead of us.
Derek is doing is best to remain calm in the stand-still traffic.
The boat race on the Nam Khan River is nearly identical the one I witnessed in Nan City back in Thailand, yet another reminder of the cultural-crossovers in the region.
“What are those?” I ask seeing a handful of young locals strolling long the road popping little pods of something into their mouths.
“Those are Job's Tears,” Xu explains. “We use them for traditional Chinese medicine.”
Xu asks her mother. It turns out they're used to improve circulation and nearly everything else as well.
A bend in the road reveals no end to the traffic, which we catch a glimpse of way up ahead of us.
“Hey Derek, if you want to turn around, Jess and I can try to find the place on the motorcycle tomorrow,” I suggest.
“Yeah, we might need to do that.”
Back at Saffron, Derek attempts to give us directions to one of the villages with which the coffee company works. However, they're miserable directions. Basically, we drive on this windy road until we get to some bend and we'll “just see” the coffee trees.
“Andy's wife says we can borrow the bikes for a little bit if we want to,” Jess says, thoroughly over walking around town an hour after Derek cuts us free. “Or we can rent them for 24 hours.”
“Let's take them out to the book store,” I suggest.
We mount the grandma-style bikes with their cute baskets and bells.
Standing up on the pedals Jess and I take off down a cobbled street. I'd forgotten how much I love being on a bike. The single-gear pushbike draws up memories of taking my Little 500 Schwinn coaster-brake bike to the Uptown Cafe for a breakfast shift early Sunday morning after a light dusting of snow on Kirkwood back in Bloomington, Indiana.
Biking down Sisavangvong Road, the main tourist drag, I spot Yosua and Lina sipping drinks outside of Tangor Restaurant, Bar and Lounge.
Yosua gives me a big bear hug as we stop to say hello and I introduce Jess to them.
“Want to meet back her to watch the parade?” Yosua asks.
“Sounds perfect. Let's do it in about 90 minutes?”
“So Yosua is Morocan, who does custom design clothing in this little surf town, while Lina owns 24 dogs,” I explain to Jess as we ride away, giving her a character sketch of each of them – a strange habit I've picked up since starting Dice Travels.
We park the bikes, which nearly fall over as we attempt to lock them together. Down the stone steps of a narrow alley next to The Three Elephants Cafe is the Tamnak Lao book exchange. I'd tossed my copy of IQ84 over the fence last time I was in town because they weren't open when I was there. Now, the doors are open, though I doesn't appear that anyone is around.
Letting ourselves in through the gate, Jess and I start flipping through the small selection of books on three book shelves in the corner of the living room. There are plenty of recognizable titles. Though I wasn't planning on buying anything, I pick up American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis on Jess's recommendation and a copy of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, which also includes Alice Through the Looking Glass.
A plump European woman appears from somewhere inside the house, the book exchange is simply a section of her living room.
I exchange my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being for American Psycho along with a required 20,000 Kip donation for a local orphanage and then pay full price for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
When we arrive back at the guesthouse, Andy spots us locking the bikes back up.
“Took the bikes out?” he asks in a passive-aggressive tone.
Inside our room, I'm not sure how to phrase the question in my head to Jess.
“Okay, so I don't want to sound racist, but Andy's Jewish, right?”
“Oh, yes,” Jess says, confirming my suspicion after having already agreed about the passive-aggressive tone he used about us freely using the bikes.
A French-Canadian film producer working on a documentary about the Luang Prabang Night Market tried to squeeze me for free drone footage last night. Though she claims to have no budget all for the footage, I decide to go ahead and get some footage tonight – the market won't be here tomorrow – while Jess does some shopping for skirts, as well as decorative umbrellas for her new home in Phuket.
“The SD card is full,” I say after setting up the drone.
“Really? I knew the was a reason we weren't able to make it to the coffee plantation. It sounds ridiculous, but it's like my friend always says: It has been put in motion by the universe.”
“Yeah, can you imagine getting all the way out there and not being able to get any video footage? That would have been a complete disaster; dodged a bullet.”
After clearing the SD card back at the guesthouse, Doresy takes to the sky from the parking lot behind Haw Pha Bang temple.
A handful of novice monks, wrapped up in saffron orange robes, gather around me as the quadcopter lands. I hand the drone to them so they can have a better look at the machine.
The novices were very interested in the drone. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though we're running late, Jess and I arrive at Tangor before Yosua and Lina. We take up seats on the narrow balcony on the second floor, a perfect place to view the parade, which is going to happen two nights in a row – at least that's what we're guessing.
Jess considers ordering a bottle of wine, which, given my financial situation, I'm not voting for. Instead, she orders a glass for herself and a meat and cheese platter, while I get a slightly over-priced bottle of Beer Laos. People are milling about in the street below. Farther along, back toward the temple, it's possible to see the glow of the festival lanterns placed in the courtyard, with the bustling Night Market is in full swing in the middle of the road in front of it.
Yosua arrives wearing a short-sleeve dress shirt, while Lina makes my heart skip a beat: she's wearing a low, low cut top, her ample, bronze breasts drawing your pupils down away from her flirtatious eyes. The top of her lacy pink underwear is also visible above her pant line.
They pull up chairs.
“So I asked the guy downstairs about the parade. It sounds like nothing is happening tonight,” I tell Yosua. “Why don't we all go to Oasis and then maybe go bowling?”
“That's the place I was telling you about where everyone ends up going. It's super chill. They've even got beach volleyball set up.”
“Nice! I love volleyball,” Yosua says, his hands seeming to be unaware of what they're doing as he bops Lina's lovely bosom.
She shoots him a sharp look as Jess tries not to laugh.
Though a tall woman, Jess has no interest in joining a volleyball match. She hates volleyball. Nonetheless, she's up for Oasis and possibly bowling.
We all nibble at the meat and cheese dish for a bit, then finish our drinks.
“I'll drop the drone off and then we'll meet you there?”
After we part ways, Jess turns to me.
“That was quiet the outfit, hey?”
Through the dimly lit garden of trees and bomb shells, Jess and I spot Yosua, Lina and a pair of their friends who have just thrown in the towel on real life back in the UK and are starting their world tour.
A lovely evening leads us to another night of bowling in Luang Prabang and eventually back to our guesthouse.
Pleasantly tipsy, I sit on the edge of Jess's bed, chatting with her in the dark, while wanting to curl up next to her for a platonic cuddle and a deep sleep.
Though my presence isn't entirely unwelcome, she's not about to scoot over to make room for me, so I stand up after a couple minutes and find my way back to my own bed.