I was mentally prepared for some of the food in the villages in Viengkham to be challenging for me. I hadn’t, however, expected similar food hurdles this last weekend at the house of one of Mike’s colleagues.
Mike came home on Friday bearing the news that we had lunch plans the next day. Apparently a representative of the powers that be who has some influence over the issuance of visas for the international staff of NGOs in Laos was in town. Mike’s deputy thought it was a good idea for Mike to sit down with this guy over a beer so that this man (as Mike put it) “could smell him.” To facilitate the smelling the local staff had organized a big Saturday lunch to which they would bring the PTB ambassador. Late on Friday afternoon they got around to inviting Mike and I as well.
“Informal,” Kapono told Mike. “Informal only. Drink beer, make friends.”
Kapono may have meant, “If we all drink beer together, they will pretty much have to issue you a visa.” Or, maybe, “If we all drink beer together, then they’ll at least start to consider issuing you a visa.” Or, maybe, just, “Let’s get together and drink lots of beer, because it’s really fun.” It’s sort of hard to tell.
[Sidenote: A tendency to be ambiguous and last-minutish does seems to be emerging as a recognizable pattern here in Laos. Mike came home one evening recently and made me laugh with tales of a staff member who had came into his office at 4:30 and asked him if he would “perhaps like to perhaps have a meeting now?” when what this staff member really meant to communicate was:
(1) Three weeks ago we scheduled a very important meeting with six members of an international assessment team for 4pm today;
(2) We forgot to put it on your schedule;
(3) You are supposed to be chairing this meeting; and
(4) These six foreigners are waiting downstairs for this meeting to begin and have been now for half an hour.]
On Saturday, lunch started at 10am. At least, that’s what we were told. So that’s what time we showed up. That was also, therefore, the time we were handed our first full glass of beerlao.
No, I haven’t yet learned to like it. And especially not at ten in the morning.
Things got off to a somewhat slow start. It was 10:30 before anyone else got there. 10:42 before the ambassador of the powers that be showed up. 10:50 before there seemed to be any sort of critical mass, and 10:51 before someone made the first beer toast and the drinking started in earnest.
Ah, the drinking. Every time we go to one of these events I learn more about the drinking culture here.
It’s not as if the beer is terribly potent. Beerlao is not a tremendously strong brew to start with, and they put ice in it, which waters it down even more. The problem really lies in the fact that people here drink it as if it’s going out of style. As if they have just finished a twenty-mile hike in the Sahara desert. As if they are eighteen-year-old Australian mining engineering students.
The drinking is also communal – you are not left in peace to nurse your glass of beer at your own pace. At regular and frequent intervals someone will propose a toast and everyone will enthusiastically clink glasses. What is being toasted varies, but it’s usually some variant on, “here’s to good health”, or “strength”, or “good work”. On Saturday, after Kapono told us that one of his buffalos had been stolen, we all drank to the fertility of the remaining two buffalos.
So after you’ve acknowledged everyone else’s glass and paid appropriate homage to health, strength, work, and the sex life of Kapono’s buffalos, you then take a large gulp out of your own glass. Or two gulps. Or three.
It depends where you’re aiming to drain your glass to.
You see, the country of Laos is long and thinish. So is a glass of beer. And if you’re drinking beer in Laos and someone calls out the name of a city in the south of the country, the rules of engagement seem to state that you are to drain your glass all the way down to the level of that city. If you’re not sure where that might be, never fear, your neighbor will helpfully point to the spot on your glass. After the group scull there is much laughing and commenting on the speed (or lack thereof) at which everyone present can drink.
And a couple of minutes later, as soon as everyone’s glasses are refilled, it all happens again.
I made it through most of one glass of beer before I handed it off to Mike and switched to Pepsi.
This turned out to be a mistake. I was trying to hang onto some semblance of politeness – if I wasn’t going to drink beer like everyone else, I thought that at least I could honor the hospitality by drinking a glass of something higher status than mere water. But I hadn’t banked on not being allowed to stop at one glass. Indeed, the women I was sitting next to – women who spoke not a word of English – didn’t give me the option of stopping at all. Every time my glass even reached the halfway point they smiled beatifically, reached for the Pepsi, and refilled it. By the time I’d been participating in the drinking rituals with Pepsi for three hours, I’d drunk almost two litres.
This wasn’t the worst of it, however. These women – these lovely women – were doing their best to take care of me. This meant that they also kept reaching over and putting food onto my plate. Particularly the prized pieces of pig fat – big, quivering, white, chunks of pig fat. And they were very keen indeed for me to have some of the pig blood soup.
If I sound at all churlish I really don’t mean to. It was remarkably and strategically hospitable of Kapono and a dozen other staff members to organize (and pay for) this get together. It was lovely of these women to try and watch out for me, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. It was fun to laugh with them, even if I couldn’t understand much of what was being said.
At least, it was fun for the first hour or two.
By the time we were well into hour three it was not quite so much fun, and by the time we’d been there for almost five hours I was done.
I was over-caffeinated, and definitely over pig fat. In addition to pieces of barbecue pork, sticky rice, and some unidentifiable but peppery vegetables, I’d eaten a couple of pieces of the fat and several spoonfuls of soup (carefully bypassing the pieces of intestine). I’d spent the last hour slowly eating raw beans one after another so that no one could accuse me of not partaking.
Definitely done, and very determined on one point, at least.
Regardless of the circumstances, I will not be eating any more pig fat for the rest of the week.