Girls in Nong Khiaw, Lao

Moments: Nong Khiaw, Lao

Kate and I walking up a street in Nong Khiaw, Lao.

She’s a little ahead of me, on the opposite side. A steeply sloped side street connecting the unpaved lane along the Nam Ou river with the main road through town. We’ve just walked along the lane from our guest house, passing boys kicking a flip flop between them as if it were a ball, hens and chicks foraging in the weeds, a broom “factory” where the soft branches of local bushes are bundled and drying in brown cones as tall as cats, barechested men digging a wall’s foundation by hand with shovels.

Another day we’ll walk along that lane and there’ll be a party in progress, tables set up under canopies and deafening rock music, a birthday we guess, hundreds of guests, and as we pass by drunken adults will grab our wrists and thrust their own half-full warm cups of beer into our hands, trying to drag us under the canopy, and we’ll have to promise to come back before they’ll let us go.

A little girl at the top of the street, dark-haired and barefoot, sees us coming and runs down toward Kate. These little Lao children are so exuberant sometimes, shouting Sabaidee! Sabaidee! and trying to talk to us in a language we don’t understand. This girl launches herself at Kate, blasts down the hill gathering speed, chortling, and Kate crouches and braces to catch her and then at the last moment turns so she just touches the little girl as she rockets by, both of them laughing.

When I join her Kate’s smiling and she says, “I wanted to pick her up but I was afraid to. I don’t know what her mother would think.”

I thought this was so sad, meeting the little girl’s trust and delight with uncertainty, withdrawal, when in a better world it could have been a joyful moment, the girl’s sense of safety met by Kate’s wonder and welcome. Kate is nothing but sweetness, the little girl would have been safe in her arms, but, of course, not everyone is like that, and we have to be careful what we teach children, don’t we?

That evening after supper as Kate and I crossed the bridge over the river in the fading light, walking one behind the other, a teenage guy on a scooter rode up alongside us and tapped us each on the butt as he passed, Kate and then me. Kate and I looked at each other and then at him, motoring away, already a dozen yards off. I said, really? Did that just happen? and Kate said, yes it did, and we were angry. But now, well, I think of him and the little girl as a sort of pair, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say they represent cause and effect, but there is a cause, there’s always a cause, and when I think of that my anger dissolves and blows away like smoke.