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My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [5619] | Comments [1] | Scholarship Entry

The old man squats over the kiln and pours the molten ordinance into the cast. Made of fire-hardened teak, each mold is worn smooth by decades of use and clasped together with a frayed length of hemp twine. Black singe marks cover the block and the withered arms handling it. Within minutes, the toaster-sized mold is gently pried apart, revealing a perfectly formed, untouchably-hot metal spoon ready for a lifetime of service.

I’m in Ban Napia, a microscopic village located on the Xiengkhouang Plateau in Eastern Laos, known to westerners as The Plain of Jars. Ban Napia spoons are special. They’re created from scrap metal left by the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. People here call that time the American War. Americans, it seems, don’t call it anything at all.

Over thirty percent of the ordinance – known as UXO – failed to detonate; so the countryside is now an irreparably scarred, well-seasoned minefield. Spoon making is good business. It can also kill you. Every year over 100 Laotians (mostly children) die in UXO related accidents, but the payoff for collecting scrap metal and molding spoons seems to outweigh the risks.

It’s late January and the tiny villages I pass heading to Ban Napia are whirlwinds of motion. Every man, woman and child is working, either cutting or carrying, collectively focused on storing the corn, squash and flax in preparation for the monsoons. As I carefully weave the motorbike along the dilapidated, asphalt-quilted road, the earthy sweet smell of cattle and smoke makes my eyes water. The rainy season is just around the corner and each field has been torched, leaving a blackened gash across the raging green backdrop. I wonder if this is what it looked like back in 1964.

Like the other villages in the area, Ban Napia is a simple cluster of sun-bleached thatch dwellings slowly losing their battle with gravity. As I coast into town, a dusty lean-to comes into view; the dirt floor has been shoveled out and at its center is a small furnace not much larger than a rabbit hole. The three occupants – father, mother and daughter, I assume – are huddled around the sunken kiln in a scene directly out of the Pleistocene. I stop several meters outside the enclosure and mumble “Sawadee.” It’s more of an announcement than a greeting. Noticing me for the first time, the old man in the center of the ring raises his head and beckons me in, his smile a blackened crescent ruined by time, neglect and betel nut.

As I sit on the packed clay floor just outside the depression, I’m handed the aluminum spoon, newly minted, still warm from the fire. “Buang,” the blacksmith whispers softly. “Buang,” I repeat, attempting to commit the Lao word for spoon to memory. I stare at it, fascinated by its deadly origins as well as the road it took to get here. As my mind wanders, another mold goes into the fire.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011



This -- these moments -- are why I travel. Thank you for this poignant piece.

  gaylesquest Apr 19, 2012 3:20 AM



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