I feel as though I am missing that maternalistic gene that most women my age seem to possess. I do adore my niece and nephew. I have a few close friends that have kids and I think they are great, because I see the same quirky characteristics in them that I love about their parents. The average stranger's baby is another story. While everyone one else is cooing over it, I retreat to a corner and secretly think to myself how it looks like a tiny, wrinkly, bald alien. That has all changed since I have been in Laos. I am totally and completely in love with the children here.
They are beautiful little people, with eyes so black you can see your reflection in them; untamed wild hair, often with smudges on their faces, wearing dust covered clothes. I don't think that their appearance is due to the fact that they are uncared for, quite the contrary, they seem to be adored by all the people in the villages, everyone is always showing off their babies and carrying them on their backs using some kind of cloth wrap; the workings of which befuddle me. From what I have observed their disheveled appearance it due to the fact that they live the majority of their lives outside and at a very young age they contribute to the needs of the community. We've seen countless children under the age of ten carrying the standard knife (more like a machete) that is tied around the waist of almost every rural Lao person. They carry pounds of wood and haul it to their homes in makeshift backpacks. They tote around babies only a few years younger than themselves on their waists or backs. They help make fires and collect plants for making brooms and thatch roofs. They hunt with slingshots, crossbows and spear guns. They possess an awe inspiring set of survival skills before they reach their teenage years that I envy. If I ever get lost in the wilderness I would love to have a six year Lao child by my side.
The reception from them has been mixed. There have been days when my hand gets tired and my throat sore from returning the waves and “hellos” we receive while driving through the villages on our motorcycle. There are other times when we get off our bikes, take off our helmets to walk towards them and they retreat to their homes, scared of the large white creature looming towards them toting a camera. I have taken a photo and a petrified child has burst into tears. Other times they pose giving me the peace symbol and burst into laughter when I show them the results on the digital screen. Their laughter is contagious and I always have a smile on my face long after these encounters are over. Other times they just stare not knowing what to make of us.
Tara and Tyler have been traveling much longer than us and have a ready supply of paper and pencils to hand out to children. Pete and I thought this was a great idea so we purchase some of our own. When we give them to the kids they often have a look of bewilderment on their faces, but shortly afterwards we usually get a quiet “khawp jai” (thank you). I am not sure that in some of the more remote villages that the children go to school, so I don't know if they can read or write, but I hope they will have some use for them.
Three months ago if I had seen images of these children I may have pitied them, using my western misconceptions to assume they were poor and unhappy. I am sure that life is not easy and they may be monetarily poor, but their lives seem rich and fulfilled, and they seem wholeheartedly loved and well taken care of. The phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child” takes on a very literal meaning here. I now feel that they are not to be pitied but revered for their strong will, beauty and perseverance. When I leave Lao I will miss them most of all.