A shot with the Shaman, Northern Thailand
‘Me and my friend Tee, we both say if we not live long, no problem,’ said Pou as he necked a shot of root wine from a bottle cap.
We were sat on a path outside the home of the Karieng village leader. It was dusk and I was slapping imaginary mosquitoes from my legs. Kids were observing me from a distance.
Pou started to explain his theory of contentment by drawing the axis of a graph in the dust. He was using a twig. Turns out that Pou enjoyed his role as a guide for two reasons and he revealed them both on his graph.
The x-axis represented number of friends, he explained. The y-axis was bottles of O’Thay – his name for the local brew. With the variables established Pou drew a diagonal line. ‘It starts zero friends and zero bottles of O’Thay,’ he said.
Pou liked to talk.
‘And it finishes here.’ His stick stopped in the top right hand corner, where maximum friends and maximum O’Thay was the desirable point on the graph. He marked out happiness with a large dot and grinned a toothy grin. When Pou smiled his ears stuck out even more and he looked like a child who had been praised for his cheek.
So while Pou’s graph was not overcomplicated by mathematical anomalies or accidents of the universe, I decided to accept it. I had another drink with him.
O’Thay was made from a number of ingredients. Whilst mostly undetected by my unaccustomed palate I knew already that it includes betel nut and root vegetables. I had seen them earlier, being unearthed from a subterranean fridge dug out in the soil.
This crude liquor was a kind of epicentre of Karieng social life, more so tonight because I, the visitor, was drinking it. It was passed around in a chipped, stained mug, mouth to mouth, bashfully accepted by the Karieng who were bright with smiles and timid as boxed dolls, although their tactless curiosity was ample enough to unnerve even the least self-conscious. By now, however, self-awareness had started to drain from my body.
The sudden arrival of a small dead bird on a bamboo skewer aroused the pleasure of everybody in the hut. No larger than a sparrow, our village elder carried it to a makeshift but controlled fire in the corner. His benevolent gaze fell upon me. I knew that our eye contact was suggestive of the fate of both bird and I and I guzzled another O’Thay to dull my senses further.
The creature was tossed onto the fire, fully clothed, and it was incinerated. Then it was graciously shared between the more senior Karieng members and myself. I got the best bit: the head, and it was passed to me on the wooden skewer.
I did the decent thing. As I chewed, the brain popped and seeped slowly into my mouth. It was like getting to the end of a Locket. I pushed the puss around my mouth for a bit, until it rested on my tongue like a warm oyster.
Of course, Pou commentated on the whole episode, barely stopping for breath. ‘You like bird, eh,’ he said. I was unsure whether he was sharing the joke or asking me a question. His intonation was all up the spout, one because he was Thai and two because he was drunk.
What I was certain of, however, was that it was the first time this evening that I had been grateful for a mouthful of O’Thay. I followed it up with a puff on a homemade cigarette – a brutal conclusion to a gastronomic orgy of an evening.
A little later every inhabitant of the small village was strewn across the linoleum-covered floor of its largest wooden hut. Earlier the floor had been a little hard under me and I had masked shuffles with enthusiastic gesticulations. But now I barely felt the discomfort. Good thing, because it was where I also slept.
It was the next morning, and to ensure that Pou’s insatiability was at least partly satisfied, the village leader had me up before sunrise to sample the brew that he had slaved over throughout the dark hours. O’Thay is distilled over a fire for the duration of six hours, it seems.
I was already awake, however. The village leader had been smoking since the very early hours, from a bamboo anti-aircraft gun, right next to my sleeping place on the floor of the hut. And when I had opened my eyes, I had seen him squatting on his feet, with his knees up near his chin. Pou was squatting beside him wrapped in a dirty woven blanket.
Now though, the village leader was smoking some kind of homemade beedie. Resting on his bottom lip it twitched with each affectionate grunt of pleasure. Pou’s addiction to his homemade liquor visibly pleased the village elder, as the cigarette jumped up and down like the handle of the village well.
So after a breakfast of O’Thay we said farewell to our host and alchemist. It was all cuddles and affection, like we had known each other for years. And on our way out of the village, I was taken to meet the Shaman. He lived on the path at the village entrance. This path, it is said, is the conduit from which evil enters and exits the village. That’s why the Shaman lived there.
The Shaman’s hut was cosy. We sat cross-legged on the floor again. I figured the Shaman was many years younger than his appearance made out. His cheeks seemed clamped together and you could see the link between skull and face that is missing in most other living beings. His eyes were set back and rarely moved in tandem. Around him, his possessions appeared limited to some bamboo dinnerware, some shamanistic concoctions on a low, askew shelf and a wife with an unhealthy phlegm habit.
Pou had already explained to me that when the Shaman died the village would be forced by tradition to relocate. Based upon my first impressions of the Shaman I suspected that the lease might be coming to an end soon.
Forever keen to translate, even when no words were being spoken, Pou began.
‘For tradition we drink O’Thay with Shaman for not to offend.’
Pou seemed delighted with himself. It was quarter past eight in the morning. He pulled out a full bottle of O’Thay from a worn hemp bag that hung by his side like a Sankara Stone.
The respect Pou had for the Shaman seemed to accelerate his drinking. He downed around ten small capfuls of this freshly brewed O’Thay before passing it back to the Shaman, who matched Pou and I shot for shot. As a consequence, the Shaman’s eyes grew further apart. Pou’s eyes glassed over.
I was the only one with normal eyes, however, on account of skipping rounds on the sly. They were too engrossed to notice that I was not actually filling the cap. I pulled faces each time and mocked a shiver. Then I would slam the cap on the floor, shout ‘arrggh’ and hand the bottle and cap back to the Shaman. Who handed it to Pou. Who handed it back to the Shaman. And so on.
Minutes later, half way between sentences, Pou’s face began to spasm as if had just sucked snake venom out of a wound. The Shaman, a cure for everything of course, handed Pou some salt.
Pou looked at me, trying to join his eyes together and focus on my face. He was looking straight past me. Pou placed the salt in his mouth and it appeared to stabilise Pou for the moment. There was a pause. Then Pou pulled a grin.
‘To vomit inside the Shaman’s house mean to sacrifice chicken. Then mean to drink more O’Thay,’ he explained. His face was white and transparent like a freshly caught squid.
I sympathised with Pou. Then I realised that there was no need – he had hit the desirable point on his graph. Fortunately, on this occasion the chicken lived. It took us a while to get to our next camp, however.