With These Hands

On a recent trip to Don Det in the 4000 Islands of Southern Laos, I asked my tuktuk driver how old people were on the island. Did he know any? He said people only lived to about 75 years. I wondered if any would agree to an interview. He said he would ask around.

The next morning, a little girl waited near my room. She was maybe 4 or 5 years old, barefoot. She was to take me to meet someone. She held my hand and we walked together to the house of her grandmother.

This woman had the typical mouth and teeth of a person who chewed betelnut- red lips, teeth ground down, and talked in a slight slur. I learned that I was not here to meet her. She was to take me to meet her husband’s older sister.

We walked some way in the hot sun along the unmade broken road, dodging the occasional tuktuk and motorcycle. Turning onto a single foot-track, we came to a typical elevated house. Slowly I climbed the timber stairs. At the top, lying before me on the floor was an old woman, frail, literally emaciated. I was introduced to Mon. Her name would be pronounced Mw-one, (Mwon), and this is some of her story.

Mon is 85 years old. School? She never went. Nobody really talked about school when Mon was growing up. Girls were especially never pushed to attend school. Mon, like other girls, worked in the fields helping her parents, or helping at home. There were no tourists when she was young. And she never really thought about attending school.

Later, Mon married, had two daughters and two sons. Her daughter, who is 55, lives with her and cares for Mon. She has never married and has no children. (I’m unsure if this daughter is Mon’s youngest child).
When Mon gave birth to her fourth child, she experienced numbness throughout her body. Her arms would go numb, or her legs. She says she would feel very cold. It didn’t matter if the weather was hot, rainy, windy or cold. Always, she felt cold.

Mon says that about 15 years ago she lost her appetite. Even now, she never feels hungry. She tries to eat, but if she eats more than a little, she feels sick. She says that often she has diarrhoea. Now I understand why she is bone-thin, with hips wide and legs like matchsticks. I doubt she weighs even 40 kg.
I asked if she was comfortable lying on the floor? Was a mattress better? No, she said. She gets too hot on a mattress in the daytime.

Mon told me that she often cannot sleep at night. Sometimes she manages only an hour or two. Lies awake all night. It’s lonely, nothing to do, and everyone else is sleeping. Many times, there are drums banging in her ears, she said. Boom boom boom. I told her it’s the sound of her heartbeat. The boom is the blood pumping through her body.

I told her I get the same. I also mentioned my tinnitus – the high pitched scream in my ears. Mon said she pities me, because if I lived as long as she has, it’s not enjoyable to have that constantly in your ears.
Mon says because she doesn’t sleep much at night, she is often very tired in the daytime. She is sometimes too tired to sit up. And when she is tired, she sleeps. Mon cannot help it. And then she can’t sleep at night. What to do? she asked me.

At 85, her mind is still sharp. Her eyes hold me in a steady gaze. Her speech is steady too, though I rely on my interpreter.

What about the young people of today, I asked Mon. How do you think Don Det will be in 10 or 20 years? Mon says she doesn’t know how the lifestyle will be maintained.

Mon told me that as she grew up, she learnt how to do the farming, how to plant the rice and vegetables, care for them, and to do the harvesting. Also for the fishing, the cooking, everything. Mom said when she was young, she learnt how to make all the fabrics, do the weaving, make and sew the clothing.
She shakes her head, and tells me…

The young people aren’t learning these old skills now. All you need to do is have money and just buy whatever you want. So, you must have a job to get the money. When there were no tourists, everyone struggled financially.

The young people are lazy, too. They only want to work 1 or 2 hours, and then they’re too tired. She sighs, and says she can’t see the old ways surviving. Don Det will change, she thinks. Even more than it has with all the tourists. But she can’t worry about it. She is too old now. She has worked most of her life, in the house, the fields, the garden, on the Mekong.

I know Mon is Buddhist, as she has string blessings on both her wrists. So I asked her, you believe in reincarnation? The Buddhist way? Yes, she nods. Will you come back? Yes, I think so, says Mon.

This interview was made possible due to my tuktuk driver, Bounmee, and to Phetphonexay Keopasith (Xay) of Nakasong Paradise Travel, a tour agency in Don Det, and especially Dr Hong Samingvongsa, who interpreted for me.

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