But, while we're waiting for Kindle to cook it, here are two extracts, both set in the Homestay in a village near Luang Namtha. 'Nick' is our guide, and 'Lucy' one of the women I met on a bus.
A Homestay opportunity is one reason I’ve chosen an organised trip to the north of Laos. Finding a home to take you in, when travelling independently, has always seemed a little risky. This way I can spend a night in a village, catch a glimpse of rural life, and hopefully meet local people who will regale me with their stories. I have my pen and notebook ready.
There is a village walk planned, but first we must leave our luggage. . . I slip my shoes off at the bottom of a flight of wooden steps, and begin to clamber, steadily, upwards. Immediately a girl of about fourteen is beside me, taking my elbow. She smiles, steers me on upwards and into a large room. She nods, in a way that asks if I’m all right. She takes the weight off my pack as I slip it off. I feel a bit like an old person being helped across the road. Her motives are kind – and I can see her mother, behind her, grinning her approval at every step. And so I relax any grumpiness at the suggestion that I might need such assistance and accept it with good grace.
‘What is your name?’ she asks.
‘My name is Jo; what is your name?’
It seems her English lessons don’t run to replying, for her next question is, ‘How old are you?’
‘Sixty-two,’ I tell her.
She gasps; her eyes widen. She says something to her mother, who walks across and peers into my eyes. She calls down to a man standing below the house, and he runs up the steps to inspect me. The lass asks my age again, as if trying to make sure she heard right the first time. It is clear I should be dead by now.
I am, I recognise, an exhibit. But it doesn’t matter. In many ways it is an advantage; maybe I can use it as a way into conversations, find out how it feels to be really old here. Questions pile up in my head.
But there is no one to ask. The lass who helps me has exhausted her limited English. No one else in the family speaks a word. I am treated like a queen from a foreign land, when I would rather be able to put my feet up by their fire (metaphorically speaking) and swap stories.
Later, we gather round a camp fire to drink, Lao-style. A small plastic cup is filled with beer and the first person in the circle swigs it down. The same cup is refilled, passed to the second person – and on round the circle. As each bottle is emptied another is opened. And if the crate is finished, someone buys another. Maya has a hygienic hissy fit and will not drink. But the rest of us put Western germ-qualms to the back of our minds. Well, it’s that, or no beer. And it’s a convivial way to drink – though the pressure to throw it down, when you know that the person next to you is already salivating, is strong.
The Lao are very proud of their beer – known as Beerlao. It is made from rice, and is heavier than the hop variety. In fact it is so heavy it is like drinking food. Complan without the vitamins. Or any other goodness, for that matter. And it goes down particularly well round a camp fire.
Children hover behind us – they are never far away. Lucy and I play: we sing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and then Lucy stands up to show them I’m A Little Teapot, to universal applause. I flush with the joy of playing with children; and can’t resist that smug shiver which comes with making a child giggle.
It is your turn, we say to them, expecting Laotian rhythms and exotic finger-clicking. The children, led by one boy who has clearly done this many times before, clears a space; even the lads quieten to watch them. They sort themselves into a line; the boy on the end nods and, on his count of ‘one, two, three…’ they burst out with ‘Hey, Macarena’, wiggle their bottoms, wave their arms, sing the song and dance in a display many a party-goer would be proud of. Their spectacle complete, they puff, then look at Lucy and me as if to say, ‘Top that!’
Mercifully, Nick interrupts to tell us that it is suppertime.