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Covid Feuilleton #1
[Luang Prabang, 1/24/20]
Though I’ve written thousands of words about each country visited during my Covid-induced wandering, I’m reflecting on them now because patterns and themes have become clearer, two years into the plandemic.
Having visited Savannakhet, Vientiane and Phonsavan, I was in gorgeous and idyllic Luang Prabang on 1/24/20 when a reader, “Sunshine,” asked me, “Linh—I am curious to know what your take is, on this coronavirus. What are they saying in Laos and Vietnam?”
Newsstarved and buslagged, I thought he was talking about the African swine fever, whose effects were still felt in East Asia. Clueless, I answered, “As for your pork question, it’s now twice as expensive in Laos, and I’ve noticed that my servings of udon with crispy pork have often come with very little pork, so that’s the bottom line. One night in Phonsavan, I had stewed pork with eggs, a traditional comfort dish, and it came with just tiny bits of pork, yet four eggs! so the proprietor was likely compensating.”
If all we’ve had to worry about was pork price! Realizing my confusion, I wrote, “There is no panic in Luang Prabang, but that’s about all I can say. There are many Chinese tourists here, but Wuhan is quite far away.” There were also thousands of Chinese workers, there to build all sorts of infrastructure, especially a railway to the Thai border. It’s exactly this Chinese expansion that prompted the US to unleash all kinds of attacks against China, including biological, undoubtedly.
Since the purported source of this new scourge was bat refinement, seasoning and appreciation, I added, “Laos do eat many wild animals. Strolling through a wet market, I spotted a couple of grilled critters even I couldn’t recognize, and I’ve eaten just about everything. If it’s served to me, I’ll eat it!”
At a stall, I saw live rock rats in a cage next to eggplants, mellons and spinach. Grill the meat and stir-fry or boil the vegetables, you’ll have a delicious and healthy meal. In the Phillipines, rats are sold as “star meat,” with rats spelled backwards. Just to be clear here, no one eats sewer rats, but field or wild ones. Free-ranging, feeding on grains, chemical and stress free, they’re better for you than factory farmed beef, pork or chicken.
[Dien Bien Phu, 1/31/20]
Returning to Vietnam on 1/31/20, I took a van from Luang Prabang to Dien Bien Phu, which I had visited in 1995, when I traveled through Vietnam’s mountainous and tribal northwest with photographer Mitch Epstein and his wife, Susan Bell. (Mitch did the cinematography for Salaam Bombay!) All of Vietnam was wretchedly poor then, but this region especially so, with its people stunted from a miserable diet. Smiling toothlessly, a bent, shrunken crone gave Mitch a handful of hot peppers as a gift. He handed out cigarettes to the men, and candies to the kids.
Twenty five years later, Dien Bien Phu’s population had ballooned. Its main streets were garishly lit with stiff garlands, strung across at regular intervals. At a trendy café with photos of Paris and Venice, you could enjoy a lame pizza.
On 2/6/20, I departed Dien Bien Phu for Lao Cai, a thin river from Hekou, China. Though 1,150 miles from Wuhan, Hekou was also under lockdown, while on the Vietnamese side, life was perfectly normal, except for the absence of Chinese tourists, merchants and truckers, that is. During my 9-day stay in Lao Cai, I peered into China daily with a macabre fascination, to find streets and boulevards emptied of people and traffic, though at night, colored lights were still lit up cheerfully. On a huge billboard facing Vietnam, President Xi advised that we should all "Adhere to the Road of Peaceful Development" while "Promoting the Construction of a Community of Shared Destiny."
With the border closed, Lao Cai also suffered, of course, but everyone assumed this crisis would be over within weeks, and not, God forbid, be indefinite, like the War on Terror, but against us all. One café owner could still joke, “Corona chocolat!” At a laundry service, however, I was charged triple, for I had forgotten a Henri Mouhot book in my bag. The day before, I had left it with a child, since the owner was absent. Now, another kid took my money. Hiding in the back somewhere, his mom would only speak to me, and not show her face. With her business evaporated, an English-reading goofball suddenly appeared, a godsend!
[Lao Cai, 2/15/20]
2/18/20—Naturally, it’s maddening to only peer and not enter to sniff, touch and devour, so I ascended into the mist and cold, to Si Ma Cai. Though not quite as close to China, it’s much more remote, thus less well guarded, perhaps? There had always been plenty of illegal crossing. In fact, my cousin’s estranged wife had been caught with heroin and executed in China. It was her first trip abroad, too. Though I didn’t want to mimic her demise, I vaguely thought I could, well, step over for a quick look, like I once did from Candelaria, Texas to San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua. (Long tolerated, its footbridge has been dismantled, thus splitting a community in the middle of the desert, with reciprocal needs on each side.)
Come on, Corona-Chan, just let me in. No one will know, and you will lose nothing, only gain a sniveling fool who won’t ever forget you, though he’s gone by morning, perhaps from this earth even, with you having the last laugh.
As expected, the food in Si Mai Cai was awful, and my bathroom had an air vent which broadcast digestive music from an adjacent toilet. It was cold all right, since there was no heating anywhere in this town of 26,000. The only warmth came from my tea or noodles’ broth, which too quickly went cold. Jiggling my knees and rubbing my cracked hands, I drank lukewarm coffee in the frigid Las Vegas Café. Worse, some locals thought I was Chinese, that is, a conveyor of the coronavirus.
Mapless, I marched towards the border, up and down a winding mountain road that was mostly unpaved, and eventually too narrow for even one car. I passed terraced fields, crude cement or brick graves and tiny villages, each with newish schools that already looked aged. Most houses were wooden and basic, but a handful were surprisingly fancy, with one three-storied, in pastel colors and with a duck pond. Mostly, I trekked alone towards the unknown, safe in the knowledge I couldn’t get lost, for there was only one road.
I had hiked for three hours, which meant three more hours to get back, but I wasn’t done. What kept me going was the suspicion that the hazy, bluish mountains right in front of me were in China, and I was right, for a soldier finally ran towards me, “What are you doing, uncle?!”
“Just taking a stroll.” A preposterous answer.
“You can’t go there. That’s China!”
[to be continued, of course and unfortunately]
[Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, 2/14/20]