Pepsi and pig fat

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.

14 responses to “Pepsi and pig fat

  1. After a very long day of caring for an energetic, tempestuous, unrelenting toddler and mellow baby where I just about got to read one page of a magazine before being jumped on by said toddler- I look forward to hearing about your other world over there in Laos.. and sometimes wish I was experiencing similarly adventurous things. But not when pig fat is involved!!

    Miss you Lis. Where are you spending Christmas? We’ll be in Brissy- if you’re visiting Ballina I wonder if we could meet somewhere??

    big hugs, Amy

    • Ohhhh… it’d be lovely to cross paths, but I am almost positive we won’t be able to make it home for Christmas this year. If plans change, however, I will let you know. I’d love to see you guys. And I hope your adorable toddler and that sweet little one are doing well. Give my love to Matt, too. Thanks for coming to say hi!

  2. This was exactly my husband’s experience in rural China last month. He was staying with the Chinese alone, and he found dealing with the force-feeding to be tthe most difficult cultural thing to accept. Eventually he became more firm. NO I don’t want more, I’m not hungry, I’m not used to this food, etc. He didn’t want to be impolite, but just couldn’t take it!

    • Yeah, it’s really hard when you know it’s all done with the best of intentions, and that it’s really important to them that they take care of you well. I’m going to have to figure something out though, cuz I am not eating pig fat every time we go to a local party. I’m just not.

  3. Hey Lisa,

    Finally finished my close-to-final draft of the thesis and took some time to read your blog. Brings back memories. I remember feeling absolutely claustrophobic in Indonesia because of the heat, panicking, thinking “I can’t get out, I can’t get out”. And slowly starving up in my room in Afghanistan because each time I went down to dinner and smelled the mutton fat and rice, I had to go right back up again. Falling in love with an ultra poor village that could only afford to put an egg on the rice instead of the usually fatted sheep chunk. (Embarrassing my staff by announcing that from now on I wanted what they considered ‘poor people’s food’). Saving up boxes of US Army field rations for Friday nights – my one good meal of the week – protein cookies and boil-in-the-bag ravioli.

    Ah yes, life on the edge. It’s all for the stories, babe. It must be, because living it just ain’t fun.

    Except for Mike, it sounds like. Ha ha. Say hi for me.

    And chin up. It sounds dashing and adventurous to everyone else!


    • Ha ha indeed. Yes, he generally finds this much more fun than I do. Which alternatively baffles me and awes me. And me… at least I have stories :).

      I remember one of your stories about thinking about trying to get a fish to roast on the beach – somewhere in Mozambique I think, or maybe Indonesia, and how overwhelmed and panicked you got. I still think of that vignette and laugh. Laugh because I still often feel like that.

      Congrats on the thesis draft. I’m plugging away at book draft number two (or, like, eleven, depending on how you count). I’m trying to teach myself to say two, cuz it’s less demoralizing. Off to work on that now. Hope you and Celestina are really well. We really enjoyed seeing you guys in Vancouver last month.

      Oh my word, was that really only last month?

      Stay in touch.

  4. i’m there with Amy and the toddler/baby scenario…. Sometimes being forced to drink beer and eat weird stuff sounds easier,…but the smiles from the wee ones are worth it! Hoping you came down from that caffeine high soon enough and tummy righted itself quickly! Hugs

    • I did. Tummy handled it all surprisingly OK that time. Here’s hoping I’ve seen the last of the Asia gastro… though I know it is unlikely :). And, yeah, I can see how being “forced” to drink beer for hours on end could sound like it would trump a cranky baby. It’s too bad we can’t do these things in shifts – I have an hour of beer, then an hour of baby, while you have an hour of baby, then an hour of beer!!

  5. Oh yeah , and your smiling pic would never tell the truth of the day! 🙂

  6. Oh Lisa. I feel for you – 5 hours of dodging pig fat, blood soup and listening to incomprehensible conversation is a bit tough. I hope you ‘get a migranine’ next time this kind of get together is organised… but then again, the story sure is amusing, so maybe you can be a fly on the wall?

    • Yes, I made it through this entire week with no pig fat, and I was happy! And no gatherings of that nature this weekend. We’re actually going to get to go see our house today – though they’re not quite ready for us to move it. But exciting nonetheless!

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