Sepon is a small town about fourty kilometers from the Lao/Vietnam border. When I stop for the night, the first people I meet at the tiny guesthouse are Saengmonee and Khonsavanh, who are interpreters for Handicap International, a Beligian NGO which helps the Lao clear unexploded ordinance from various provinces in Lao. I join them for a game of rattanball. A woven ball of rattan reed is kicked around on a netted court similar to a volleyball game. When they take it easy on me, I'm able to fake it. But when warmed up, they start warning me, "watch out, I'm going to roll over." The ball is set, lobbed gently above and near the net and in a sudden explosion of motion the player is twisting airborne in a spinning jumpkick and the heretofore innocent sphere becomes a blur which humms down to kick up a puff of dust on the hardpacked court as it spins off thwack into the fence. This ain't hackey sack.
I learn how to eat Lao food at the best restaurant in Sepon, rolling up balls of sticky rice with my hands and dunking them into soups and spicy stews of chicken, fish and vegetables. I'm teased for my inepetitude. "You eat like an excavator." Saengmonee is 26, and his wife is 18. As he explains it, the difference in age is no problem in Lao, as long as the bride's parents agree to the marriage. His invocation of a Lao saying, "old buffalo likes to eat young grass," which I find hilarious in its own right, later gets a second wind when I learn that buffalo is also slang for penis.
The next morning, beautiful Mrs. Bohapahn with her smiling eyes teaches me how to count and say "bicycle". My language lesson at the best resaurant in Sepon brings peals of delighted laughter and the occasional amused onlooker. Afterwards, I find myself in a truck with Tony West, the District Coordinator for HI. The interpreters have asked him to give me a tour.
We visit the site of a new school. Under the direction of two Nepali Gurkhas, a couple dozen Lao men methodically sweep the ground with metal detectors. Digging up each rusty bedspring, piece of schrapnel and old bicycle handlebar that activates the detector makes for slow process. The area next to the school site is not cordoned off. The villagers won't allow the miners to clear it because they don't want holes in their soccer field.
As we drive to a nearby village, Tony gives me some background. Sepon is the place where tourists (a couple each week) stay when they want to see the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The wide spot in the forest where local guides bring them may be an oversimplification. Sepon sits in an area which is a topographically obvious route through the mountainous terrain of western Lao. It is likely that the Ho Chi Minh Trail wandered along multiple routes through the region, a fact not lost on the Americans at the time. During the late 60's and early 70's, they looked at maps of the region and decided to bomb the shit out of it. B-52's saturation bombed the areas deemed most likely to shelter the steady stream of people and equipment heading to South Vietnam.
Along with a painfully large population of people missing limbs, the legacy of this destruction remains in the huge amount of unexploded ordinance.
The remains of cluster bombs are ubiquitous. These two meter-long bombs containing five hundred fist-sized bomblets or bombees were designed to open at a certain altitude, spreading their contents. The bombees come in many flavors. Some explode on impact. Some have a timer activated on impact with the ground. Some won't explode until moved, and often come in pretty colors so children will play with them. We saw live bomblets set out of the way in tree limbs for lack of a better place to dispose of them. Khonsavahn told of finding one imbedded in a dirt road, its exposed surface polished by the tires of passing trucks. Tony showed me an indication of the intensity of bombing around the village. A monk had asked local children to bring him these casings. They constructed a fence around his wat made entirely of hundreds of cluster bomb casings pounded into the ground. The monk died long ago, and the villagers now avoid the site. They interpret the monk's sense of irony as insanity.
The casualty rate from UXO accidents has dropped off sharply in the years following 1975. Tony attributes this not to a removal of all the UXO, but to a grisly learning curve. Trial and error has taught the people what they can move and how. The lessons are imperfect, however, as the few Tony and the fence dozen annual injuries attest. Almost admiringly, for he is a military man, Tony shows me the local scrap merchant's trove. Bomb casings have been sawed open and the explosive burned out. The aluminum tailpieces from bombs are rare. One of these pieces, which screws right off the steel bombshell, can fetch ten or twenty dollars. One of the reasons that downed aircraft were often difficult to find in Lao is that within a week of a crash locals had cut it up and carted it away for sale.
Every house in the area has tokens of the usefulness of the Americans' gifts from the sky. I spot anvils made of bombshells, canoes made from the long-range dropoff fuel tanks of B-52's, troughs for pig slop, flowerpots.
Wandering through the village, I am mesmerized by the tangible reflection of my national guilt. As we walk to the gleaming white 4X4, a group of children answers my smile with stares. At times like these it does not feel good to be American.
Riding away from Sepon on New Year's Eve, I put Nustrat on the walkman to remove myself from the scene I pass through. Hammering along the dirt road, I find myself laughing to choke down the tears which track through the red dust covering my cheeks.

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