Luo ashed his cigarette through a crack in the bamboo floor and handed me another cup of rice whiskey. I was tired and wet and cold, and on my way to being drunk too. We had spent the day walking through endless rice paddies in the alternating mist and heavy rain. I didn't even bother with a raincoat anymore; everything I owned was soaked after three days of walking. I guess this is why they call it the rainy season.
We came across a small village perched on a terraced hillside overlooking a cloudy valley. Anemic children, their bones protruding from beneath thin t-shirts, stood in flooded fields alongside their parents. Whole families busily planting rice for the springtime.
Luo had a cousin who would let us stay with them for the night. We wound our way up the hill to a bamboo house on high stilts. Beneath the house were three tethered pigs and a motor-scooter. Roosters wandered about freely and a lone water buffalo mucked around near what turned out to be a pit toilet.
We took off our shoes, rinsed our feet and climbed up the uneven stairs to the house. In one corner of the room three malnourished dogs huddled together in a tight ball. I chose a different corner and dropped my backpack. Luo went through a thin bamboo divider into the other room to greet our host and offer a pack of cigarettes. He was gone for a while so I tried to find a comfortable spot on the floor.
It must have been a few hours later when I awoke in the dark to the smell of wood smoke and steamed rice. Two of the three dogs had relocated and were asleep next to my face. I pushed the closest one away and slowly sat up. Luo's cousin, Mei, was laughing at me; he had never seen a white person so filthy or who could sleep so easily without a mattress or a pillow. Luo was reassured when I turned down his offer of a cigarette. "If you were able to sleep on the floor with dogs AND smoke cigarettes, I would have thought that you were Lao." I smiled and Luo directed me downstairs to where I could take a cold bucket shower next to the pigs.
With a clean set of damp clothes on, I walked back upstairs and settled down in my corner with the dogs. Mei's wife had finished steaming the rice and had made me a plate of vegetables. We all ate quickly and in silence, the preferred method of hungry people the world over.
Mei's wife cleared our plates and I went back to my corner to sleep with the dogs. Luo and Mei pulled a cloth off of what I thought was a box but was really a new tv with a dvd player. I was too tired to even contemplate how poor rice farmers could afford such an extravagance. I dozed off to the sounds of Kill Bill Vol.1 and occasional whimpers from the dogs.
Luo woke me up an hour or so later. A friend of Mei's was over and the guys were all drinking whiskey. I shuffled over and joined them for a drink. The rice whiskey had been distilled in the village a few weeks ago. Twenty years ago we would have been smoking opium, but the Lao government has done a pretty good job of forcefully replacing one habit with another. Mei's friend had found and boiled a bunch of freshwater snails for us to snack on with our drinks.
And so the evening passed slowly, cigarette smoke mingling with the smoke from the cook fire. The whiskey helped me feel warm for the first time in days and the dogs slept in the corner, patiently waiting for my return to bed.