On Wednesday one of our neighbors told us that the monthly “dai” market on the Chinese Lao border was very cool and that if we went we could purchase wine, beer, and monkey head. It pops up on the 7th and 8th of each month and sellers from Lao cross the border to sell their wares, which consist largely of illegal animal products. As always it seemed slightly mysterious, and guide book and google research yielded very little information. Supposedly, the only way to go involves getting someone from the Dai villiage with a van to drive. Luckily, Manuel is working with Zhuangfang who happens to be from the local village, and she said she’d hook us up. The guy her mom found had never worked as a driver so he said he wouldn’t do it without Zhuangfang, which was a bonus for us since she is super fun and speaks Dai, the lingua franca of the market. She told me later that her mom wanted to find driving work for this guy because most of the men in the village spend their time away from the rubber plantations where they work gambling, drinking and playing illegal lottery games and this man has avoided all of those things. He is exactly my age and already has grandchildren.
Driving out of town and looking around without worrying about whether or not my kids were getting hit by a car allowed me to really look which led to a “wow I can’t believe we live here” moment. Shortly after we left town began passing through seemingly endless rubber plantations. We saw miles and miles of tightly planted rubber groves taking up every bit of available space on terraced hilltops. As far as I can tell, most of the local men currently work as rubber tappers. In the mid twentieth century this area still consisted largely of tropical rainforest. In the 1950’s when the west imposed trade embargos on China the government made Xishuangbanna a hotbed of rubber as part of a larger plan to render the country agriculturally independent. In the 1970’s local people were still considered too lazy for this kind of work but educated urban youths in need of re-education did a lot of time on rubber plantations. Land reforms of the 80’s and 90’s gave land to individuals and encouraged the continued planting of rubber. The Garden in which we live does quite a bit of research on the environmental impacts of rubber planting and is responsible for some as of yet completely unattempted plans for reforestation. I’ll have to do a little fieldwork in the compound to understand the science of it. For starters I found this quotation from our neighbor and director of the institute. (He is not the party secretary) “The future of the botanical garden is intimately linked to the future of the ecological environment of the region,” says Chen Jin, director of XTBG. “The day when the forests are gone and rivers dried up would be the end of the XTBG.”
At some point the kids got restless and miraculously the little minivan with no seat belts and no ac sprouted a TV screen playing music videos of red songs and Xishuangbanna anthems. I could not see the tiny screen but I’m told it featured scantily clothed dai women dancing with plants and exotic animals. Eventually we turned on to the infamous Kungming-Bangok expressway, which goes through China, Laos and Thailand, linking Mekong river countries. The highway contributes to a trade infrastructure and will in theory have great impacts for globalization. As of January, studies predicted that it would double the trade between China and Thailand. It also considerably opens up relations between China and Laos. I know nothing about this area but I can only imagine that the highway will have large impacts on cultural trade as well. The people of Yunnan, Laos and Thai are ethnically linked and their different political situations are imposed by their different nation-states.
The Mohan landport is the only land border crossing between China and Laos and, as we cruised down the highway, sure enough a market sprouted up out of nowhere. They apparently open up the border for this endeavor once a month. At first glance it looked like the usual market except it was full of women from a variety of ethnic groups that we had not seen. The colors were stunningly vivid. As always in the region women dress in traditional dress where as men wear crappy looking modern clothing often doing away with the inconvenience of a shirt. I found the Yao who come from the hilltops and wear amazing brightly colored skirts particularly arresting.
Like the market here, it had none of the bustle and hustle of a big city market, or of a village market in Latin America—not a single person tried to get us to buy something. That may be the Buddhist thing. We were the only white people or westerners in sight, and the kids attracted a lot of quiet attention—no photos but a lot of stroking of their hair and skin. We’ve learned that at times when women here stroke the kids arms and seem to sort of measure them they are checking to see if they are healthy. Interestingly, Rebecca who wears tank tops attracts the most concern on the health front.
Since this was day two of the market, there were no monkey heads left but If you’ve seen my pictures on facebook you know that we passed up opportunities to buy all sorts of yummies. Zhuangfang did buy deer skin which she says tastes good and betters health if you roast it on an open fire and suck the juice out—we passed. Zhuangang and I located monkey penis which given my work on castrati it might well count as research. It’s dried and long. They also sold congealed monkey blood, which apparently cures menstrual cramps. The kids imagined a Red Cross blood drive scene with nice ladies giving out cookies, not poached monkey’s shot and drained. Rebecca desperately wanted an ivory comb but since it was actual illegal elephant ivory she had to settle for a rabbit’s foot made out of otter. They also sold ground up tiger bones, rhino horn, and bear bile.
We bought none of those animal delicacies but we did buy raisins, which I’ve had no luck finding here. Other treats were peanut and sunflower brittle and some very yummy crackers made from sticky rice and honey. A fruit vendor gave us a bag of mangosteins for no clear reasons and we bought fresh honey. Manuel bought a gorgeous Laotian basket, which I used to carry rolls to a birthday party yesterday, and I purchased some Dai fabric that looks a bit different from what we get here.
Our next stop was the duty free shop, which turned out to be two shops. The first one specialized in food and yielded olive oil, Italian spaghetti and chocolate. The kids spent a good 10 minutes picking out m and m’s which turned out to cost $40 so we did not buy them. We had to find duty free shop number 2 to get the booze, which I wanted. I am desperate for wine. This involved going directly to the border crossing. They have a brand-new swanky building that looks like an airport except that the check in counters are customs and passport control. We ran into a group of monks crossing from China to Laos. We saw the gorgeous sight of wine and bought three bottles.
The ten and under crowd took this all in stride, as if in our family when neither the Charlottesville farmers market nor Retail Relay can meet our needs we regularly traipse off to a market of illegal animal parts on the formerly closed China/Lao border. Things that to adults seem phenomenally interesting, disturbing, or simply markers of what a different planet we inhabit this summer already register as normal for them. In contrast, we came back to the news that a long postponed birthday party for Eli’s four-year old friend Rona would occur as a pot-luck picnic in the pagoda on top of the waterfall. The excitement in the compound may have exceeded our kids’ reaction to the Great Wall. By 9:00 in the morning we had a full report on the pink cake, and Eli had already gone to help make it. Manuel and the big kids rode bikes into town to procure supplies for our contribution, and Rebecca carefully plotted turtle and R shaped challah buns, and the kids all planned various games. (Each kid was supposed to bring a game) But 2:30 we were asked every three minutes when we were leaving and finally at 3:45 when we saw Rona’s 6’ 3” Scottish dad drive off on a bicycle wagon built for a 5’ tall person hauling his daughter, the cake and various treats, the pitch was high indeed.
And the whole event made such a stark contrast to the day before that I once again had that the disconcerting sense of living in a not quite post-colonial compound. We all arrived on bike or motorbike, and the bulk of the party was the group of foreigners in which all of the families other than us are comprised of white scientists married to Asian women. Revellers also included a few Chinese grad students, and, best of all from Eli’s perspective, Rona’s Chinese friend Chen Chen, whom Eli flirted with shamelessly, much to Rona’s chagrin. I took a picture of Eli and Chen Chen playing a drum brought back from Tanzania and titled it “An American boy, a Chinese girl, and an African drum.” Other than Chen Chen, these are the same seven kids who spend every day together, and all eight of the kids were out-of-control excited. The setting was truly spectacular, on top of the waterfall and overlooking a pond and more plants than I normally see in a month.
The temperature probably passed 100 degrees at some point and everyone was red faced and sweaty. The kids had sack races, three-legged races, and played British bulldog and Tug-o-War while the adults sucked down warm Lao beer opened without an opener. And though no one has more than two burners and a toaster oven in their kitchen, the food included beautifully presented (and excellent tasting) pizza, cake, apple pie, spring rolls, Thai noodles, tempura potatoes, watermelon, and a few fruits I’d never seen before. One of my problems in these sort of pot luck scenes is that everything I make looks like one of Eli’s playdoh project. I simply can’t become one with my battered electric toaster oven and stovetop that beeps and shuts off when it doesn’t like the pot. The whole scene seemed very far from the China/Laos market with it’s monkey parts, brightly colored ethnic minority clothing, and the ever-present hooch.