Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Cafe owner Sith offers me a whiskey
I’m bouncing along in our 4X4 on a rural Laotian road. We’ve just left a village where I watched a blacksmith pound old war refuse into farm tools! ‘Swords into plowshares’ indeed. On our way back, we stop at a small roadside café to satisfy our thirst. It's a hot day, and a freshly squeezed juice would really hit the spot.

As we enter, I quickly notice that by western standards it’s not a café. It’s more like an ornate shack with tables, and bizarre decorations. I’m wary of the lack of cleanliness, but my guide recommends the place. I decide against a fresh juice, and opt for a safer can of soda. 

Soon, I’m approached by an old Laotian with white hair. This is Sith, the café’s owner. I’m relieved to learn that he speaks some English, though his French is even better. 

“I French teacher, many years,” Sith tells me. He first learned in school, back during French colonial times. Wearing shorts and sandals, he still sports a black French beret. 

Retired from teaching, he now runs this small café. I check out one section of the eatery’s walls, and I’m surprised to see it covered with two things: posters of pretty Laotian women, and a variety of unexploded ordinance!! While peddling coffee, Sith has been selling UXO relics as war souvenirs on the side.

This is a very dangerous trade, and our host has quite a selection. The display has various mortar rounds, artillery shells, spent artillery casings, a claymore mine, and a belt of machine gun bullets. His biggest display is of 'bombies', small explosives from deadly cluster bombs. Up on a shelf, he has set up a gridlike display of more than 50 of the dangerous orbs. 

Display of deadly US 'bombies' line a wall. Are all of them disarmed?

Since Sith isn’t a trained in bomb disposal, it’s a good bet that at least one of those 50 bombies is still live. If that was true, and one of those bombies is dropped onto the floor and detonates, it could easily kill everyone in this room. It’s happened before. 

Selling disarmed explosives is illegal in most parts of Laos, but in remote places like this, the strict laws regarding the safe handling and selling of UXO aren’t followed. 

As I’m looking at the deadly display, Sith picks up a bombie, tosses it in the air, then offers it to me. “You want buy one?”

I look at him nervously. I’m not into war souvenirs, even if it was defused. Besides, if I was caught carrying a bombie at a border crossing, or caught carrying one inside my luggage onto an aircraft, I would be in a great deal of trouble. I decline. 

More 'bombies' on display. Many types of cluster bombs were dropped on Laos.
Since I’m not buying, the friendly old guy shifts the conversation to politics. He mixes in  the old, and the modern of the political world. He states to me, “Nixon is like George W. Bush.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“Nixon like the war more than peace,” he says. “Nixon like to bomb the people.”

Sith doesn’t get many American visitors, so as I depart, our host pulls out a bottle of homemade Laotian whiskey. Getting out a small glass, he has a toast with me. 

After we drain our glasses, Sith quickly tucks the bottle away. As he does so, he wears a mischevous grin, as though he’s trying to hide it. “My wife,” he says, gesturing toward the back of the café. 

Now I understand. Sith didn’t want his wife to catch him drinking!

We climb back into our 4X4, and hit the road. 

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