A Fine Meal

Steaming Stew

Until now, my route through Lao has been flat. As I spin north from Vang Vien, limestone towers jut from the rice paddies and frame the newly completed tarmac as it heads for higher ground. While enjoying the last kilometer of flat ground I expect to see for awhile, I come across an army patrol. Two teenagers on bicycles with Kalashnikovs slung casually over their shoulders. I hope their laid back attitude means I have nothing to worry about.
In Vientiane, I had taken some effort to satisfy myself that the scary reports about this route are exaggerated. The more excitable expatriates and embassy types assured me that I'd be taking my life into my hands. This sounded a bit too dramatic, so I delved deeper to learn that only three foreigners have been shot in the past year. Of these, only two were assaulted by the army itself. I also heard an Australian backpacker rave that the parts considered dangerous would be fantastic for cycling.
So I buy the army guys ice cream from a roving bicycle vendor and head on to a day of long, steady climbing. Slow climbing. I'm still ten kilometers from my intended halfway point when singing draws my eye to a hut perched on an outcropping overlooking an expansive valley. As I round a corner, the road once again fails to begin the raging descent I feel I've earned. The reddening sun forms a halo that seeps through the bamboo walls. I turn onto the path.
A young man, the source of the high singing I heard, watches bemused from the doorway as I stagger to the hut. After inviting myself to stay the night, I notice the machine gun mounted to cover the road I've just climbed. Craggy hills disappear to the horizon, deep blues progresssively lightening to pale shades of grey. It seems fairly picturesque as far as army bases go. As the endorphins take control, I machine gun dance around the hut, working the phrasebook, giving the two resident soldiers a show. I expose myself to the setting sun, washing a day of sweat onto the dry ground from a jug of springwater. The soldiers peek around the corner to catch a glimpse of their exhibitionist guest.
For dinner I tuck into their leftovers; sticky rice and a greyish, spicy stew. In this part of the world, there is no question of eating only the tenderest bits of an animal, nor is any attempt made to hide the gristle or sphincters in a sausage. So I'm accustomed to popping an unidentified hunk into my mouth and chewing the meat off whatever bone it is. But I pull this one out to examine it when I feel something sharp poking my cheek. The yellow lamplight reveals the bloody, cracked skull of a bird which looks decidedly un-chicken-like. Rather than letting it unsettle me, I decide to face up to this culinary adventure. I pop the skull back in my mouth and continue slurping the flavor out of the cracks.

Ponsavan is grooving to the rap on my walkman when the other two residents arrive carrying the results of their hunting. With a flintlock rifle they have bagged a shrew-like rodent and a plump little bird. The game is efficiently gutted and impaled on sticks to roast over a fire. In addition we have a brace of frogs, caught with the aid of a snorkelling mask and a rubber band-propelled spear gun.
Soon I am invited to a second dinner, each of the three stews much more tasty than the previous one. Taking an example from what I was taught in Vietnam, I chew up the frog bones along with the tender, delicately spiced meat. I laugh when I notice the piles of bones next to their plates. Thankfully, I have already declared myself full by the time the entrails are offered up, the guts of each species steaming on its own stick.
Taking leave of my hosts in the morning, I climb, descend, climb again. The road is beautiful. It contorts itself to keep elevation, campsite winding for many kilometers around massive valleys to connect two ridges, and wrapping around the many folds in the terrain to maintain a relatively constant grade.
Occasionally I pass a small village perched along the ridge. With a backdrop of cracked grey cliffs soaring high and fingerlike over a deep river valley, one dry village seems particularly small. A closely spaced cluster of wooden shacks sits on a ridge denuded of trees. It is built around two concrete cisterns. Women wash clothes and people bathe in the constant spout of water emanating from holes near the bottom of each. The source is a black PVC pipe which I follow uphill for three kilometers before it disappears into the forest. Sad looking patches of burned swidden agriculture appear sporadically.
In the afternoon I'm rewarded for the climbing of the day before by one of the best on-road downhills of my life. Kilometer after undulating kilometer of sustained big-chainring cruising, the heavily laden steed leaning into sharp corners with nothing beyond the shoulder but scenery. I actually catch myself wondering when it will end, and marvel when it keeps descending long after even that rare point. After once again paying the piper with a tired, switchbacking climb over a couple final hills, I relax into a beautiful campsite where a stream flows into a river. Locals pole by in longboats as I have a glorious swim in the fading light.

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