A perfect day with a weaving cooperative

The first year I volunteered with the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, I helped a group of women from a weaving cooperative in Laos set up their booth.  Yesterday, I spent the day at their site, studying the dying of silk and weaving a project.  It was a perfect day.

The cooperative is located in Luong Probang, Laos on the Mekong River.  I was picked up in a tuktuk with 3 students from Iceland .  We had tea in the reception area, watching the weavers arrive and set up their looms for the day.

A delightful man, Piu, gave us detailed information about silk worms, the process of making silk and the materials used to produce the natural dyes.  We then each chose 3 colors and went to the next area to produce the dye to color our silk skeins.  I had to cut up sappan sticks teak bark with a large machete.  The  others collected mulberry leaves and lemon grass stalks and another removed and chopped up the seeds from annatto trees.  It was 10:30 and a perfect day.

The natural materials were then put in pots to boil and ashes were added to some of the colors.  We each took our skeins of silk and put them in the different pots to dye.  When the official dye man hung our skeins in the sun (Mr. Magic Hands) we were amazed that we had done that work.

Piu then took us to a table and brought out a large basket with beautiful skeins of silk.  He then showed us a woven piece about 18 x 14″ with an intricate design   in the middle which we would be making (?) and to choose 2 colors.

We then went to another area with looms and spinning wheels which was where we would be working.  We were introduced to our individual instructors who did not speak English.  My instructor, Jen, showed me how to spin my spools of thread.  In the meantime, the instructors set up our projects and wove the initial rows to get us started.  We were then shown how to weave and became more familiar with the process.

We broke soon after for lunch.  We were at a table overlooking the river and served tofu veggie soup, river fish, and mint chicken salad with rice.  It was a great meal.

Then it was time to take on the weaving.  One of the students was a star and everything connected for her.  She became very involved with all of the steps in producing the intricate design.  I was the worst in the group.  I needed to think through each step, broke threads and my piece was uneven.  My teacher took it in stride and calmly walked me through it.  In the middle of the design, I realized she was doing all of the steps and worked to take a more active role.  Finally, it was all working.

The teachers did the finishing for us and we all had fantastic pieces.  Mr Magic Hands delivered our dried silk skeins.  What a day!  I gave my teacher a major hug and thank you.  It was an amazing experience.  We left with a very deep appreciation of the expertise of the master weavers who had taken the time to work with us.

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Plain of Jars

I wanted to visit this area for two reasons.  It is the site of ancient structures and it is where the secret war was fought by the Americans who were never officially fighting a war.  A portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through here.  The area is heavily mined and MAG is in place working to clear the area of mines.  Statistics say that only 2% of Laos has been cleared.  When I was there, MAG was out with minesweepers – we passed them.

So, I took a bus to Phonosavan.  I was told it was 11 hours long.  I was the only foreigner on the bus.  Remember I have no vocabulary in Lao……..  I was told there were two buses – one went direct from the bus station and the other stopped often.  Obviously, I bought a ticket for the direct bus.  I was also taken to the bus station and put on the bus – the wrong one.  We could not have stopped fewer than 40 times.  It was awful.

I have been on buses where I didn’t speak the language.  No problem.  The bus stops at a rest area, go to the bathroom and get back on the bus.  but…….  There were no rest areas,  The bus just stopped – all the time.  Finally, I needed to get off and we were stopped for a really long time.  I want sent behind a truck and chased out by a nasty dog.  Finally,  I found the side of a building………

After many, many hours, and people were sitting on plastic stools in the aisle and kids were throwing up, we stopped in no where and guys went one way and women went the other.  Thank goodness for little packs of kleenex……

Fourteen hours later, we got to the town.  I got to my hotel and asked for a tour of te Plain of Jars and she offered to call me a tuk, tuk.  I said no, I wanted a tour……….  finally, I said I was taking a shower and needed a tour.

$90 later, I had a tour – I talked them down from $100.  All the info said it was $15, but this was not the right season……St

The Plain of Jars is huge and consists of varied sized sandstone jars. Legend says there were giants and they were made to hold whiskey.  Studies show bones and jewelry left and that they were probably burial chambers.  There is a quarry that cannot be visited as it has not been swept for mines.

In one of the villages, people use the left over ammunition, to make spoons, bracelets and other pieces to sell.   Fifteen people in the village have been seriously hurt from the mines, but since MAG has arrived and done a great deal of education, there has been no problem.  However, a mine had been found and officially blown three days before I was there.

I will attach photos.  Later I tried to find dinner and couldn’t find any place that was open, had no internet in my room and managed to get a bus out of there the next morning to get to Luang Probang.  I was seriously questioning my ability to travel in 3rd world countries, but am fine, now………

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About Laos

I have finally started a blog…   It took me a while to figure out how to do this……  Here goes……

Laos:  capital is Vientiane and it was a French colony, so much of that charm is in Vientiane.  It is a communist country. The money is kip and there are 7,850 to the dollar, so the amounts for everything are astounding and one person told me it was possible to be a millionaire in Laos and still have nothing.

There are no highways.  All of the roads are two lanes and there are massive serpentines, so speeds are really, really low……  Buses take forever and there are no rest areas.  The houses are on stilts and built on the edge of roads and cliffs.  In the roads are loads of chickens of all ages, horses and cows.  In the distance are the beautiful hills and mountains with the fog and clouds through them.   The Mekong River runs through the country and it is beautiful and muddy.

I am in Luang Probang which is the ancient capital and a wonderful, calm, interesting place.  the Mekong runs along it.  The city is not large and lush with foliage.  Restaurants and furniture are made of teak, not tacky, plastic stuff.  The people have an interesting energy.  They are working to learn English and come and ask if they can speak with you.

Weaving is the ancient craft of this area and the fabrics are amazing.  Several of the tribes of northern Thailand and Laos have their weaving and their jewelry which completely agrees with my taste.

I am going to close for now……..

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I am starting a blog.  I am presently in Laos, so I can give you some info on my experiences, here.

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