Intestinal fortitude

Author: Lisa McKay '03M.A.

Three weeks after I arrived in my new hometown of Luang Prabang, Laos, with my newish husband, Mike, we traveled to the district of Viengkham to witness a handover ceremony for a gravity-fed water system in a remote village.

Mike hadn’t warned me how basic our guesthouse accommodations would be, and he smiled as he watched me take in the lack of hot water, dirty squat toilet and lumpy bed covered with one filthy blanket.

“Do you love me?” he asked.

Illustration by Raymond Verdaguer

“I should think that the answer to that question would be perfectly obvious,” I replied, “considering that I am here, with you. But just in case there’s any doubt, then, yes. I love you.”

This trip to Viengkham was my introduction to life outside the tourist mecca of Luang Prabang, and it didn’t take too long after leaving town before I started to see a little more of what the development statistics for Laos really mean when they make bland pronouncements, such as: 27 percent of the population here lives on less than $1 a day. Or, 67 percent of the population is rural. Or, more than 40 percent of the rural children under age 5 are undernourished.

It is five hours by land cruiser up to the community we are visiting, and the road twists through village after village of flimsy bamboo huts. Landslides block half the road in a couple of places, sections are unpaved, and we frequently have to slow to avoid flattening the chickens, ducks, pigs, water buffaloes, cows, dogs and little kids making use of the only paved surface nearby. The thick lace of trees covering the mountains is patched by slash-and-burn fields — rice, growing on the slopes at impossible angles. Everything looks fertile and fecund — the glowing rice fields, the coppery swamp of red dirt souped up by the rains, the greedy green clinging to the slopes.

But these months, while everything is busy growing so furiously, these are the hungry months.

In Laos the word for rice is the same as the word for food, and many here don’t have enough to eat during these months when the rice is growing. People often eat bamboo shoots instead, boiled up into a soup. Or they borrow from the village rice-bank, although many of these villages in the north don’t have rice banks — or electricity or running water.

It wasn’t food security that took us north this week; it was water. We were up in Viengkham so Mike could do the final inspection of a gravity-fed water system for a village of 117 households. The nongovernmental organization Mike works for had provided the material, the ever-vigilant Laos government had provided the “supervision” and the village had provided the labor. The end result of this partnership was a big cement water tank up on the hill, with small pipes leading down to 19 different taps scattered among the bamboo houses. Nineteen taps among 117 households may not sound like a lot, but when Mike asked the women whether they were happy with the outcome of the project we didn’t need the translator to explain their smiles.

They didn’t have to get water out of the river where they bathe and wash their clothes, they said. The water from the taps was cleaner, it was quicker, and it was safer for the children. They were happy. They were celebrating.

The whole village was in on this celebration. Men, women and children had gathered to watch Mike inspect the taps and listen to the speeches (although even without speaking the language, I could tell that the 40-minute speech given by one of our good friends from the government was beyond boring). Mike gave a much shorter speech about maintaining the system, drinking clean water, using toilets and washing hands. There was a bai-see blessing ceremony, and there was eating.

Boy, was there eating.

The hospitality culture here means it’s important to Laotians to share their best food, which usually means meat, especially when you are entertaining an honored guest. And being that honored guest in a village filled with people who are excited that they no longer have to fetch dirty water in plastic cans from the river brings with it some responsibilities.

It means that when you arrive in the village at 9:30 a.m. after you have already had a full breakfast of rice, bamboo and pork, and you are told that you are having breakfast here, too, you smile, sit down, and eat more sticky rice and buffalo and mushrooms. You wonder, as Mike did quietly to me, how many pregnant women there are in this village who are much more in need of this protein, but you eat some of the meat anyway because it would dishonor the village not to.

It means that two hours later, when you are presented first with the meat platter during the blessing ceremony, you take some. You realize pretty quickly that you have made a mistake in picking up a piece that is long, thin, dark and slimy. You eat half of it before you realize you cannot, simply cannot, eat the other half. So you discreetly pass it to your spouse, who whispers, “I really need to teach you the difference between meat and intestines before we do this again.”

You watch as he wraps it up in sticky rice and eats the rest of it on your behalf, gagging not at all, although you know he wants to. And you realize that he does, indeed, love you, too. This thought makes you smile even while you drink the shot of homemade whisky the village elders have handed you and feel it burn all the way down.

It means that an hour later, when it is time for lunch, you eat some unidentifiable paste you think is beef based — you wrap it up in betel nut leaves as everyone around you is doing, and you say it’s good. It is, too, compared to the soup and the chili paste and chunks of raw buffalo you cannot bring yourself to try. So you stick with your rice and leaves and beef paste and try not to think about how you can still taste whatever it was you ate during the blessing ceremony. You experience a sudden stab of longing for the barbecue ribs and sweet potato fries at one of your favorite restaurants back in Pasadena, and you pray that the bamboo and offal and whisky and buffalo and rice will not revolt in your stomach during the five-hour journey home.

Then you look around you and remember to be grateful to have a home to go to, that the word for rice is the same as the word for food, and that these are the hungry months.

Lisa McKay is a psychologist who specializes in trauma and resilience. Her award-nominated first novel, My Hands Came Away Red, was published in 2007. A memoir, Love at the Speed of Email, was released in 2012. She lives with her husband and son in Laos; her website is