Her Life in Laos

This lady doesn’t dwell. She doesn’t prick her memory or search her soul. Or tell her story.

I hope she forgives me. As I try to re-imagine ‘her Life in Laos’.

‘I’m born in the mid 1940s in French Indochina. My siblings and I, my parents and grandparents, work the fields of our colonial masters. They call us ‘coolies’. But we belong to the Hmong hill tribe, a mountain people. Dreams of ‘liberation’ come in whispers; confusing whispers. Pieces of news stumble and stutter. We hear independence gains ground around the world. But France hangs on doggedly. It’s the 2nd World War and Japan invades us. The Allied Forces defeat Germany. Our aspirant Liberators in Laos divide; it’s the ‘Royalists’, the ‘Communists’ and the ‘Neutralists’. The French eventually leave, in a hurry, in 1954. But liberation doesn’t come. Our strongmen battle even harder. The Vietnam War begins! The French support the ‘Royalists’. Vietnam and Russia prop up the ‘Communists’. The USA funds the ‘Neutralists’.

The Americans start to bomb the Ho Chin Min trail. It carries Communist supplies from the north of Vietnam to its south. The trail lies its full length in eastern Laos. Large B52 bombers storm our skies and pock our land. Today they say a bomb falls every 8 minutes from 1964 to 1973. I believe it. We loose people. People loose limbs, sound, sight. People run. My sister’s family hides in a cave for years. The CIA recruits men from my Hmong Tribe for mountain warfare. The world calls my Hmong the ‘secret army’ of the Americans. But our men fight on all sides. Then the Vietnam War ends in 1973. And it is Americans out and Communists in.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party seizes power in 1975. It declares control of the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This change of regime ignites fear. So many Hmong flee. Two of my brothers escape to refugee camps in Thailand. A cousin gets to the USA. The Royal Family vanishes to labour camps in the mountains. We never hear of them again. A young prince escapes across the Mekong River to Thailand and then to France. Persons in positions of authority disappear for re-education. Our new regime introduces collectivism. The state now owns the land, the buffaloes and the ploughs. My sister’s husband rather slaughters his livestock! On top of three years of droughts and floods. We stay hungry. All around me, people attend ‘the seminar’. They leave happily into the mountains to learn a new political line. Some I never see again. But most return after five years! After 6 months behind wire. After 4 years of hard labour for a peasant family. Some get their old jobs back; but one rank lower.
We get on with life carefully. Very carefully, as our picks and ploughs pierce and blow up UXOs. These unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War still lie in wait. Everybody knows the economy is in tatters. We hear China opens up. Our communist government fiddles with market reforms in 1987. Slowly our world opens up too. No real political reforms. But, at least, the camps close in 1994.
We join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. Today, my grandchildren are on second hand cell phones and on Chinese scooters. They chatter about Laos being like Thailand in 30 years time! They natter about electricity generation, gold and copper and gem mining, timber harvests. They blabber about jobs in tourism.
But we shut the rumours OUT. They arrest a dissenter. Another Hmong community suffers a revenge attack in 2009. A community development worker disappears in 2012. Murmurs pass us by about another land-grab. A word of the whole-sale of a forest blows in the wind. No, we don’t think too hard. The UXOs don’t lie very deep. The past has no place today.’

You must agree. It is … a hell of a lot … a lot of hell.

But here, I remember for us not for her.

Why, indeed, unearth UXOs that lie deeper than 25 cm. Deeper than the length of an agricultural pick. She simply stays shallow enough to get on with ‘her Life in Laos’.

Her life and all other Lao lives, too. We read Lao re-remember their history. Their one party communist state re-invents itself. Their big personalities dis-appear from public memory. Their revolutionary leader is re-nown in a single statue.

And it seems to work.

In Laos, the future has never looked brighter!

Their growth in GNP (gross national product) is 7.5% in 2014.
Their growth in GHP (gross happiness product) astounds us too! Despite the past, we see Lao work, eat, drink and laugh. They dish out Smile and Peace Signs like cheap sweets. And we fall in love … with Lao.

 

I imagine - her -  ... Her Life in Laos.

I imagine – her – … Her Life in Laos.

 

The French colonise Laos till 1954. French Indochina architecture is visible everywhere.

The French colonise Laos till 1954. French Indochina architecture is visible everywhere.

 

...

 

...

 

During the Vietnam War one bomb lands every 8 minutes in Laos from 1964 to 1973.  Today unexploded UXOs still pose a threat ....

During the Vietnam War one bomb lands every 8 minutes in Laos from 1964 to 1973. Today unexploded UXOs still pose a threat ….

 

... and Harry and I see national and international agencies combing areas for and disposing of UXOs.

… and Harry and I see national and international agencies combing areas for and disposing of UXOs.

 

The Laos National Flag flies side by side with the Hammer and Sickle everywhere. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic has been in power since 1975.

The Laos National Flag flies side by side with the Hammer and Sickle everywhere. The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic has been in power since 1975.

 

And all this has left 80 of the population still making a living from subsistence farming and fishing.

And all this has left 80% of the population still making a living from subsistence farming and fishing.

 

And 40 of people live below the poverty line.

And 40% of people live below the poverty line.

 

This old lady peels away at pineapples (just like my grandfather was taught to do in Indonesia) to sell and make a living.

This old lady peels away at pineapples (just like my grandfather was taught to do in Indonesia) to sell and make a living.

 

Here young girls mend fishing nets.

Here young girls mend fishing nets.

 

And a family works a rice paddy.

And a family works a rice paddy.

 

... yes, the whole family ...

… yes, the whole family …

 

But we see these handy all-purpose tractors everywhere ... on the road ...

But we see these handy all-purpose tractors everywhere … on the road …

 

... and in the rice paddies ...

… and in the rice paddies …

 

... and these handy machines must ease farming efforts.

… and these handy machines must ease farming efforts.

 

And we see HOUSE SHOPS like this EVERYWHERE too. Almost everybody has a business in front of their homes!

And we see HOUSE SHOPS like this EVERYWHERE too. Almost everybody has a business in front of their homes!

 

This house shop offers fresh fruit and  juices. See the home in the background.

This house shop offers fresh fruit and juices. See the home in the background.

 

This lady sells take away lunches from the front of her home.

This lady sells take away lunches from the front of her home.

 

And I promise there is a home behind all that stock.

And I promise there is a home behind all that stock.

 

And another House Shop.

And another House Shop.

 

And another House Shop. Here the chickens are window shopping!

And another House Shop. Here the chickens are window shopping!

 

This kitchen serves the family at home and the customers in the restaurant.

This kitchen serves the family at home and the customers in the restaurant.

 

Here we buy a watermelon. This lady minds her business and home at the same time.

Here we buy a watermelon. This lady minds her business and home at the same time.

 

And here we buy delicious take away salads. This young girl has set up a makeshift stall in front of the family house.

And here we buy delicious take away salads. This young girl has set up a makeshift stall in front of the family house.

 

And if Lao are not in front of their houses tending to their businesses, they are under them. Because it is the coolest place to be ....

And if Lao are not in front of their houses tending to their businesses, they are under them. Because it is the coolest place to be ….

 

.... even if you have a brand new house alongside.

…. even if you have a brand new house alongside.

 

Everybody lives outside, eating, drinking and laughing ...

Everybody lives outside, eating, drinking and laughing …

 

... and we join them ...

… and we join them (on very little chairs) …

 

...

 

... and their dogs ...

… and their dogs …

 

... especially for the typical HOTPOT ... a spicy stock that you keep feeding with ...

… especially for the typical HOTPOT … a spicy stock that you keep feeding with …

 

... greens, chicken, fish, eggs.

… greens, chicken, fish, eggs.

 

We seem to be surrounded by busy and happy folk ... here Si teaches me the Lao Smile!

We seem to be surrounded by busy and happy folk … here Si teaches me the Lao Smile!

 

And these sponge cake lovers share a Peace Sign.

And these sponge cake lovers share a Peace Sign.

 

It is infectious ... the Lao Smile and the Peace Sign.

It is infectious … the Lao Smile and the Peace Sign.

 

And this peace sign has a surprising end!

And this peace sign has a surprising end!

 

Please hold on tight to your future little Lao!

Please hold on tight to your future little Lao!

 

It is a Sunday and it is my 50th birthday. We attend a mass in a Catholic Church - the Cathedral of St Teresa in the town of Savannakhet.

It is a Sunday and it is my 50th birthday. We attend a mass in a Catholic Church – the Cathedral of St Teresa in the town of Savannakhet.

 

It is not something we really do. But, on this birthday, it allows me to reflect on how very, very fortunate I have been with My Life ... not in Laos.

It is not something we really do. But, on this birthday, it allows me to reflect on how very, very fortunate I have been with My Life … not in Laos.

 

Afterwards Father Philip, comes to speak with us. He has been a priest since 1969. He hints at the past … and bears out that Life in Laos is much better now.

Afterwards Father Philip, comes to speak with us. He has been a priest since 1969. He hints at the past … and bears out that Life in Laos is much better now.

 

6 Responses to Her Life in Laos

  1. Jan and Gail

    thank you for all the insights and experiencs you shared – Jan

  2. XR500

    Thanks for the ride. You have a unique way of taking us along with you

  3. Wendy & Amelia

    War is so sad for a very loooong time! I love the positive vibe!

  4. Siem Haffmans

    Happy birthday Linda, what a wonderful journey you two are making. We are following and enjoy it, Greetings from a wet and snowy Amsterdam. Love, Siem & Hedy.

  5. Jan and Gail

    happy Birthday Linda. What a moving story. The happy ending with the Lao smile and the peace sign are magnificent. Lovely Laos may their dreams come true. What enterprise with the house shops.

  6. Gail Paton/Henning

    Happy belated birthday Linda. May your journey never end and may the road lead you on many more adventures… After all, life is a journey and not a destination. Fond regards, Gail xxxxxxx

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