Friday, 14 August 2015

the yellow house

Luang Prabang, we remember, is a sleepy town full of old temples and lovely old colonial buildings.  We passed through five years ago and enjoyed staying here.  It felt relaxed and easy.  There's a big tourism industry here - lots of hotels and restaurants, cafes and a night market - but the town has a life of its own too.  As we cycle along the road we discern one significant change - more traffic.  More scooters and notably more cars. We have a sketch map to find the yellow house where Coralie, Fabien live with their daughter Vatsana and also instructions from Fabien.   We stop to ask for directions at a very swish looking hotel.  They point us down the road but the man says doubtfully "the road becomes dirt".

We last saw Fabien and Coralie in 2010 in Vientiane.  When we first met in Iran they were driving a citroen 2CV from France to Laos as part of a project to raise awareness about water management issues in developing countries.  They have stayed and worked in Laos ever since.  And they now have a lovely daughter too - Vatsana, who is only 18 months old.  Coralie's father is from Laos, but before they came she didn't speak the language.  Now they are both fluent and Vatsana is picking up words from her day carer, the local village chief's wife.  So, they live in a village then?  Well sort of.  It's a suburban extension of the town, across a side river from the centre, away from the tourist zone, on a dirt road dotted with other houses.

We have three days to catch up with our friends before they fly to France.  But they are both working full-time so we snatch conversation when we can and distract them from a hundred and one tasks they have to complete before they go.  As ever, they both seem remarkably chilled - I would be doing the headless chicken at this point.  Fabien has to seek 'permission' from the local village chief for us to stay in their house, rather than in a hotel.  He takes copies of our passports and a small fee to pay.  It's a reminder that we are not in a 'free' country.  We are introduced to the neighbours from whom we can, conveniently, buy water and beer. The water is in 20 litre bottles and costs 30 pence.  Locals don't drink the tap water.

The yellow house is rented.  It's built in the local style with a concrete/breeze block ground floor and wooden upper storey.  At the front is a garage space and on the side a lean-to kitchen and bathroom.  They have just finished inserting bedrooms in the upstairs, for themselves and Vatsana - normally the upper floor is left open - and bricking off a corner of the ground floor for our guest room.  They share the house with two other families.  It's something they hadn't mentioned in their e-mails to us.  But Fabien insists on introducing us to the patriarchs before they depart.  He only knows the name of one - Ernesto.  Ernesto is a large gecko, who hangs out on the corner of the house at night, just under one of the night lights where the moths and flies hover about.  His family live in the bathroom and kitchen.  There's another gecko family in the living room.  

get him, Ernesto

It's kind of hurried.  We need to know certain things. What to do if the gas runs out or the electricity company come to collect.  When to put the trash out. How to lock up at night.  Washing machine.  Butcher.  Baker.  Pharmacist. (There probably is a candlestickmaker but we forget to ask.)  In the kitchen there are gas rings and two portable electric ovens.  And a sight to bring a tear to the eye of anyone from Hebden Bridge - a yoghurt maker.  There are no glass windows in the house except for Vatsana's bedroom, with the only air-conditioner.  The windows have decorative wrought-iron grills and shutters and there's a large, overgrown garden beyond the patio.  We both think of snakes in the grass, but Fabien assures us it's the wrong season for snakes.

The house is lovely and Fabien assures us this is luxury for them.  For almost three years Coralie was working with elephants out in the countryside - organising an annual elephant festival and then working with a conservation project offering treks with elephants.  Their first house in Luang Prabang flooded in the rainy season.  One night, just as we are heading for bed, the skies open up and there's a deluge.  Really heavy rain.  It blows in the wrong direction and water comes dripping through the ceiling cracks into the kitchen.  There's nothing to be done but wait until morning to mop up.

We meet their friends in Luang Prabang.  There's Rudy and Marion, Julie and Mila and Jo.  Aren't they hot?  Isn't it hot?  I'm sweating just sitting down.  Fabien assures us it will get cooler with the rains.  Rudy tells us that in May, before the rains it's even hotter - unbearable.   We should be glad!  We are glad.  We are glad to finally see Coralie and Fabien again after five years (5 years? it seems like last week) and to meet their daughter.  We are glad to have a nice home to stay in.  We are glad to have a fan.  We are glad to be able to shower.  We are glad to be here, in Luang Prabang.  At last, we can rest.

the Nam Khan river
We wave off our friends on a Thursday evening, off for an action-packed visit home.  We are cooking for the first time in the kitchen - nothing fancy - mushroom omelette.  The eggs are whisked, the onion and mushrooms are frying lightly when the gas goes out.  Ah.  Check the notes ......gas .....gas .....yes, here it is, gas: phone Rudy with the number off the bottle and he will arrange a delivery with the gas company.  Rudy has to call them because no-one will speak English.  But it's 7.30 in the evening so that will have to wait until morning.  And now what?  I know, Fabien showed us the barbecue.  We'll have to barbecue the omelette.  I get the tiny pot stand for the barbecue out and try and light the wood shavings that are in a sack.  I'm tearing pages out of an old Liberation which burn brightly but fail to ignite the wood shavings.  I start fanning.  There's flames, there's embers, there's plenty of smoke.  Has the charcoal caught? No, try again.  Finally the charcoal catches and begins to glow red.  Keep fanning.  The sweat is pouring off me, my hands are black with ash and soot.  When I kneel down to fan the embers the ants crawl all over me. Slowly, the eggs begin to cook.  Finally it's done and we eat.  When we're finished Gayle asks about heating water for a cup of tea.  Back outside I heroically go with the kettle and the fan and for another twenty minutes or so I try and coax some heat out of the coals.  But for all the effort, there's just not enough heat.  Caked in sweat and charcoal dust I am just telling Gayle that she'll have to forget her tea when I suddenly remember something and let out a howl of despair.  There's a hotplate on top of one of the electric ovens.  Oh, if only Coralie and Fabien could see us now.