Whisky in the Jar | Miriam Vaswani

The Plain of Jars, Laos PDR

19° 27′ 36″ N, 103° 10′ 48″ E

You live in a place made of flat light and heat, plains with mild hills in every direction, shrubs fizzled to rust. The sun moves slow. It has seen everything and is in no hurry.

We meet on Wednesday, early, before the heat becomes unbearable. I came to find you. Eight road hours on Tuesday, after kissing my bearded, temporary lover goodbye in a river town and climbing onto a bus with rattling wheels. The bus moved along a mountain road; I was half dead at times with nausea. There weren’t enough seats, so I sat on a bag of rice with two women and a baby. Once my body had been so sick it had nothing to do but recover, we shared fruit and tea. I held the baby for a while, so the women could rest. The driver played government propaganda music in the tuneless local style that I find unbearable.

Do you think I’d take such a journey for anyone? But there was no question of meeting you halfway. You must stay where you are, or your old foundations will crack, or worse. You are you because of your geography. That, and your survival skills. The bombs that have fallen around you have not touched you.

There’s a guide. There’s no option about this; the guide is necessary because the ground is full of landmines. On the road to the Xieng Khouang plateau there’s a UNESCO sign. It indicates the safe places. They’ve cleared the soil around you, but some metal remains, edging out of the turf like abandoned beer cans from a long-ago picnic. They don’t look lethal, but we must keep to the path. We must listen to the guide.

On the journey yesterday, a young German woman attached herself to me. She came from a small town, owned a booming voice, and wanted to tell me and the local people, who are mainly Buddhists, about Jesus. I wanted to get rid of her, but I suspected that despite her noise and arrogance, she was frightened to travel alone. That’s why I agreed to check into the same guesthouse as her last night. We had dinner together; noodle soup with mint leaves and lime. I pretended to be sleepy, locked myself in my room not long after sunset. Bathed in cold water with a plastic jug, by torchlight.

Having a guide means being part of a tour group, which I hate, but there’s no option. The others in the group are the German woman from yesterday, a Dutch couple and two Canadian couples. No one is here by accident. The guide is called Bounnong*. When we ask where he’s from, he points to a distant hill and gestures with his hand. It looks like he means the other side. He has a nice smile, and likes to translate dirty jokes into English for us. The jokes make no sense, but I laugh politely. Everyone laughs politely, except the German woman. Sometimes I laugh sincerely, because of the sheer awfulness of the jokes. Sometimes I smile, because he is radiantly beautiful.

The jars might have been used as megalithic burial pots, or maybe as ancient whisky jars, Buonnong tells us. All day, I silently sing Whisky in the Jar and imagine fighter planes flying low over the countryside. There are farms around us, but a lot of them are out of commission, we’re told. Full of unexploded mines and poison. Sometimes a cow wanders into a field and is blown apart. Better than a dead farmer, says Buonnong, noticing our mournful faces with perplexity. Buonnong’s parents are farmers.

There are two other sites, in China and Indonesia, with the same jars, and stone disks with the same bas relief of a stick man with a round head. I stand with one half of the Dutch couple looking at it. The Dutch man points out that the bas relief looks like the gingerbread man from Shrek. I find this hilarious for some reason, but this is no place for noisy laughter. We cover our mouths with our hands and try to look solemn. The Dutch woman is standing with one of the Canadian couples, two men from Montreal, staring into a tree. I wonder if the heat is making me insane. I soak my scarf with some of my drinking water and tie it around my head. It dries in less than five minutes.

I’m allowed to touch you. You’re rough under my fingers, even though my skin has been hardened by months of driving motorcycles on dirt roads and washing my clothes in buckets with harsh soap. I touch you with my fingers, then my hands, then my forearms. You’re rough, and too steep for me to climb. I would find it difficult to get into you, but it occurs to me you could shelter me from some things. Again, I imagine fighter planes flying low over the plateau, skimming the Annamese Cordillera. I flatten my breasts against you. You’re cool; this is a surprise. You still have the cool of the night, when everything around us whimpers with heat. I lift my hair, tied in a raggedy bun, and press my neck against you.

The German woman finds me. Inexplicably, she tells me she’s not a virgin. I wait for her to tell me why this is significant information. She wants to know if I’ve ever had an abortion. I take the pale scarf off my head, and the black of my hair absorbs the sun. She tells me about her fetus, and the nurses who soothed her. I look for the Dutch woman, the Canadian woman. Why does she choose me, and not them?

I don’t judge the way I used to, she tells me. I’m more human than you think.

At the next site, I am alone with Buonnong. The others are looking at the skeleton of an old gun, from the Secret War. He directs my eyes to another plateau, which looks close but is hundreds of kilometers away.

That is the quarry. The hill where they quarried the stone to build the jars. Sandstone, like my flat in Glasgow. In Scotland it would be raining, damp seeping through the walls.

How did they move the stone? I ask him.

He smiles, as though he has a secret. Nobody knows. Then he tells me a dirty joke, this time in French, about a farmer who traveled to Vientiane and swallowed a condom after misunderstanding a doctor’s advice about birth control.

I’ll never know your story. Not the old story. I know the 20th Century stories of other countries fighting for you, sending weapons so you could fight yourself, but I don’t understand what this place was before it was a battleground. I don’t understand you.

There’s another story Bounnong tells. Some say the jars were made to collect drinking water for nomadic people. Before the land was something we wanted to own, he tells us, travellers would stop here on their journey to take water from the jars. They boiled the stagnant water to make it safe, and they drank, and ate, and slept.

*name changed 

Miriam is a Stuttgart-based writer and teacher who freelances for publications in Scotland, Canada, England, India, Russia and the US. She comes from Atlantic Canada and lived in Glasgow long enough to be considered a local. She’s worked in the Scottish 3rd sector (specialising in abuse prevention legislation), and taught in Burma and Russia. She has travelled widely, lived next to the Babayevsky chocolate factory in Moscow, driven a rickshaw in Kerala and is known for having strange encounters with border guards. She blogs at http://miriam-littlebones.blogspot.com and tweets as @miriamvaswani.


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