Friday, March 25, 2005

Report from SE Asia

My good friend Catherine Kustelski just sent me words on her interesting adventures in SE Asia. It sounds amazing. Some might know her from the belly dancing she has done at the boxing matches. She is a really cool woman who in the past couple of months has been travelling SE Asia to learn more about bellydancing.

Here is her letter:

Hello friends and family!

I have discovered that two months is not nearly enough time to take in everything I want to see and do. Note to self: next time, a longer trip.

My time in Malaysia was wonderful: an informative dance workshop, a delightful visit to the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur (a large part of the Malaysian population is Muslim), and getting to know some people there--so much heart. After another short visit with family in Bangkok, I flew to Chang Rai in northern Thailand, made my way to the Laos border, and boarded a slow boat down the Mekong River. Beautiful mountains, quiet river, and a glimpse into the lives of people who know little else. Two days later, the boat stopped in the beautiful town of Luang Prabang, and here I have spent a full and rich ten days.

My room here overlooks the Nam Khan (Cold River), not far from where it meets the Mekong. All of Laos wakes up with the sun, and I do the same. I use a bike for transport; bicycles and motos far outnumber cars and buses here, and the roads are open to all. Just riding around town is a pleasure. The former French presence here is evident in the charming architecture, and the many Buddhist temples here are just as striking.

One reason I've taken this trip is to explore teaching English abroad, and I have found many opportunities to test the waters. Some women at the Lao Women's Handicraft Union asked me to tutor them, and in return they took me to the temple up some 300 stairs on a hill in the center of town. A bird's eye view of all of Luang Prabang, the river, and the mountains beyond.

I've also been going to the Children's Cultural Center every day, to teach English and to observe (and sometimes participate in) traditional Lao dancing. The children take turns playing hand drums, wooden xylophones, and hand cymbals to accompany the dancers. Yesterday after their Lao dance performance, I performed Middle Eastern dance, and then taught some moves to staff and children, girls and boys. What fun! My Lao is as limited as their English, and I found it so much easier to communicate through movement than through the spoken word.

I've also been spending a lot of time at the markets. Both Lao cooking classes I've taken have included a trip to the extensive local food market. The sights! The smells! The heaps of things I don't recognize! Dinner most nights is at the night market. Through the narrow street, crowds file by food stalls offering fresh soy milk, whole fish cooked over open coals, delicate coconut fritters (yum), excellent Beer Lao (also yum), animal parts I don't recognize right away (pass, thank you), flattened dried fish, all kinds of fruit, sticky rice (to be rolled into balls and dipped into other food--a staple of the SE Asian diet), fresh and fried spring rolls, and many freshly prepared foods that I have tried but do not know their names. I can eat my fill of delicious food for about a dollar.

Local crafts: luminous scarves, beautiful needleworked bags and quilts, silver, handmade items made from the mulberry plant. But what has caught my attention most: da chow. This is the Hmong (a hill tribe) word for the decorative hand-sewn panel that falls from the back of the collar on their traditional jackets. About the size of a pocket, tiny stitches attach miniscule pieces of cloth and ribbon to form intricate geometric designs. They are remarkable examples of patience, attention to detail, and the beauty of Hmong design.

The only people I've seen wearing these da chow are ancient Hmong women at the market. Most Hmong favor more modern clothing, so the da chow have been separated from their simple jackets and appear in scant piles next to the abundant newer hand-sewn items. I've spent many hours looking for these, getting to know by sight a few of the old women who have made them. My interest has caught the attention of some of the women vendors, as I show them what I am looking for and they root in their bags to pull out the few da chow they have left.

One of the highlights of my past few days: leaving the day market, hot and brain-tired a long lesson in Hmong from some young Hmong girls, I saw one of the vendors I've visited almost every day. When I told her "see you later" in her language, this very old woman looked into my eyes and reached up to squeeze my hand in reply.

Tomorrow I leave Luang Prabang for the smaller town of Phonsovan, located in the Xieng Khuang province. This area is known for two things: it is the home of the mysterious Plain of Jars, and it remains the most heavily bombed area in the most heavily bombed country in the world. Almost every town in this province was destroyed by American bombs during the Vietnam War. The population there is about 40 percent Hmong. While there, I hope to increase my Hmong vocabulary, learn more about their culture, and also to learn more about what is known there as "the American War."

Thanks again for your support.

Peace,

Catherine

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