I found myself deep in the vegetative coffee plantations of Laos – a remote area of a remote country in Southeast Asia. A Swiss man that I had befriended in a previous village, despite speaking any English, had invited me to hop on his motorcycle and rip through the beautiful lush countryside (no plan in mind, of course). As the sun was setting, we began to scramble for a place to sleep. We had no phones, no internet, and little direction besides our Lonely Planet book. We stopped at one of the coffee plantations that seemed to draw a fairly big tourist crowd (of 5 people), and thankfully, one of the Lao workers spoke a bit of English and invited us to stay over in their treehouse in exchange for work.
So there we were – sitting on the bamboo mat lain across the cement floor with 8 local Laotians, awaiting my most authentic meal in the country, with the house owner – Sen. The women had just finished a long day of selling coffee to highway passerby’s and admiring travelers. They naturally sat cross-legged as part of the circle.
Smiling was easy now as I drank my can of Lao Lao beer and glanced at my tall Swiss friend. He sat much more awkwardly with his butt on the floor, bare feet at his side, balancing all his probably 220 pounds of muscular weight on his wrist. Our hosts didn’t mind our unnatural body positions, nor the dirty clothes that had seen a day of hiking through waterfalls, nor the lazy way I strolled through their coffee plantation. All that mattered to the man of the house and nightly chef was that we were hunnnngryyyy.
His name was Sen. He’s 53 years-old but his long years spent in the sun tending to jasmine tea plants made him look much, much older. Hard lines ran across his forehead – a life full of work. Just as visible were the wrinkles surrounding his gentle eyes – a life full of happiness. With his careful, slow walk he carried out each circular table, all covered with food. He had spent the last two hours above a single flame preparing the nightly dinner. Every night was spent like this, said the young boy seated next to me, eager to practice his English.
As the family waited for Sen to finish his steady performance, the young boy scooped steamed rice on white plates and passed each around the circle. Large bowls of zucchini and pork bone soup, plates of diced green squash salad and an eggy-tomatoey dish looked as perfected as Sen’s easy walk. I waited, patiently, for the routine performance to begin and wondered how these people, who had worked so diligently during the day, didn’t dig right in. And then I looked at Sen – so patient and comforting at my time of need.
Finally, I got the sign that we were good to go. Metal spoons were lifted and the chattering women began dishing themselves up. I followed, glancing up constantly from my hunched over position to make sure I was doing it right – scooping each mixture with a bit of rice. Then the young boy put more rice on my plate. Then the women dished more spoonfuls of whatever they thought I needed. I say “no” was entirely out of the question. Not only disrespectful to the culture (especially the cook) but also not a way to make friends.
Although I didn’t understand most of the Lao to French to English conversation, it was lovely. The English translation was only for my understanding, since many Lao speak French. My Swiss friend, who also spoke mostly French and had been quiet on our travels now spoke freely, intertwining laughter with many copious smiles. I tried to use the little Lao I had picked up from my month of travels, but for the most part, I was a very quiet, contemplative dinner guest. I knew it was okay, because every time I looked at Sen, the smile in his eyes let me know I was at home.