The road went from smooth pavement to bumpy stones then dirt roads and there were no tourists anywhere but plenty of roosters chased by mean dogs chased by barefoot children, farmers drying their red, yellow, and green chili peppers in the sun, and dirt-faced vendors grinding sugar cane, all looking me up and down as I walked by.
I finally came to the base of the mountain and headed up a steep logging road. When it ended, I found a footpath that led blindly into jungle groves. I followed and soon found myself in a meadow where the whole forest floor was burnt – walking on black ash like the side of a volcano. Finally, I reached the top where I could see the far away town on the banks of the Mekong River, and then headed down.
I hiked down the mountain and found a different path, following across a dry creek bed to a low white cement wall among palm trees. There was a break in the wall, so I stepped in and found myself at the back of a Wat, or temple compound, the home to a dozen Buddhist monks. Most of them were just kids, sent there to live and study because they were orphans or their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. Their heads were shaved and they wore orange robes sweeping off one shoulder, as is the custom. Some were washing their clothes in a bucket of creek water, some sweeping up the ground in front of their shacks with homemade brooms, and others just milling about in the shade beside a gold statue of their patron, Buddha.
All eyes fell on me when I walked onto the grounds – they rarely saw tourists outside of town and definitely none who just stumbled off the mountain into their living room, dusty and sun burnt, into their living room.
They were skeptical. A couple of them waved hello but for the most part they just eyeballed me with quizzical scowls. I’d heard that Laotian people were so incredibly friendly but I honestly I hadn’t seen that. They don’t really smile or say hi and often look at you with what might be construed as downright contempt. But I’ve come to understand that it’s just a super conservative culture – so far north in southeast Asia that they’re closer to the Hmong people of China in customs and geography than their sunny-dispositioned Cambodian and Thai neighbors to the south.
I said, “Sah bai dee,” hello in Lao, and moved through their temple toward the front entrance, back to the road to town. I was almost gone when I heard a feeble “hello,” behind me. It was one of the monks, a skinny boy who knew a few words of English. Then, another said “hello,” and another asked me “Where you from?” I walked back to chat with them and the monks gathered around, now eager to show off whatever hesitant English they knew.
I asked to take a photo and they agreed, though a few shy ones ran away or hid behind their friends when I took my camera out. I snapped a photo but none of them smiled. The most outspoken monk, probably only 10 years old, round faced and covered with mosquito bites, expressed his skepticism by stroking his chin, looking at me like I’d just asked to dress up his pet goat in a pink tutu.
“Ahhh, Nahm!” he said, shaking heads in agreement. The repeated it among themselves like chirping birds, my name getting further distorted each time. They seemed intrigued by the camera so I held it up to take another photo. My new buddy assumed the same hand-on-chin pose but this time, two of the other monks had warm smiles.
“Ahhh Nawhmms!” they cheered. I thanked them in Laos, “Khawp jai,” and went to shake their hands before I left. I wasn’t sure if it was ok to shake a monk’s hand, especially since I was sweaty and grimy from my hike, so instinctively I held out my fist to pound it out.
A dozen Laotian monks looked at my fist and then at me and then down at my fist again. I extended it again and said, “Pound it out,” which even sounded ridiculous to me and might as well have been, “Lady Gaga shits on the moon,” because they’d never seen a fist bump before. They didn’t have TV or movies or even Internet. Everything they knew about the world and their whole lives were right there at the Wat on the side of a green and burnt mountain, only leaving for their predawn morning procession when locals gave them handfuls of sticky rice in exchange for blessings.
I tried to show them that a fist bump was like shaking hands but they still didn’t get it. To demonstrate, I touched one of my fists to the other. Always attentive students, they touched their own fists together, too.
“No, no, no, like this,” I said, and reached out my fist toward one of the monks. He finally got it - slowly, tentatively, he brought his gently-closed fist toward mine and… smashed the shit out of my hand. That brought howls of laughter from the other monks but at least they got the concept, and immediately they all held out their fists to be part of the new bizarre Western custom.
So I went down the line, fist bumping each one, until the first monk wanted to do it again and soon it was a production line of pounding it out. For the second and third rounds I mixed it up with fist bump into the fake explosion, and then the fist bump-explosion-into making it rain, complete with the proper sound effects. We were all big smiles and unabashed laughter now, completely forgetting where we were and even who we’d been only minutes before.
The next logical lesson for my eager class was to teach them the soul shake - where you pretend to form a joint between your fingers and smoke it after the fist bump and explosion and the rain - but my judgment got the best of me. It probably wasn’t a good idea to share that with impressionable religious disciples.
I can only imagine if they’re still practicing the fist bump today? Pounding it out with explosions and rain in between prayers and chanting? Maybe one will even fist bump the shiny-headed, rotund gold statue of Buddha in their Wat, or ‘Uncle Buddha’ as the little children call him?
A hundred years from now, spectacle-wearing British anthropologists will descend upon northern Laos to study these hill tribes. They’ll congratulate themselves on a groundbreaking discovery - indigenous Buddhist monks actually recount their history through a ritual of handshakes. They’ll scribble furiously in their field notebooks, later to be published and debated in the halls of Oxford, interpreting that a fist bump tells about when two clans met to trade tools and spices, fiery explosions when they went to war, and finally the life-giving rains of the monsoon season. During their research, these scholars will hear faint mention of some nebulous oracle they call, “AhhSayNawwwhhm-Si,” a strange griot who descended from the mountain one day to teach them the ritual before disappearing just as quickly. Of course they’ll have no way of knowing that he wore Nikes, drank local beers by the dozens and looked more like Uncle Buddha than he’d prefer, so it will have to remain our wonderful little secret.