By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
April 7, 2010
Last month, we spent nine days in the field with Jim Harris’s team in rural Phongsali province. We camped at the local dispensary and showered with cold river water, which was piped uphill to the village. The team hired two young women to cook, clean and launder. Our meals were served communally, outside, on an old red table. There weren’t enough benches and chairs, so we stood around baskets of sticky rice and the plat du jour. Each person paid 30,000 kip ($3.50) for three daily meals.
In those nine days, I kept a diary of what we ate. With a few small exceptions (late meals, off trekking), I managed to record almost every meal. I present that diary here because I find it a fascinating telltale of village life, its limitations, its repetitions and routines. Villagers bestowed the team with little gifts of homegrown garlic and backyard tamarind. But after the novelty faded (Sophoon is unaccustomed to foreign guests), I don’t think our cooks quite knew what to do with us. I would have loved more of the roots and vegetables that villagers collect in the forest, as well as the greens they grow in their garden. I offered to pay extra for fresh lettuce, spinach, herbs and other greens–but the residents of Sophoon almost never sell their vegetables, so the concept somewhat confused them. When something new appeared on the table, it likely had come strapped to the back of a dusty moto, driven by itinerant peddlers who make the daily trek from Dien Bien Phu, not far across the border. These sorts of travels make me a more appreciative person. The surprise of a fresh mango or mustard leaves tickled my palate with delight. READ MORE