Pualani and the Photographer: a short story set in Laos

This short story was inspired by my trip to Luang Prabang in May 2018. I picked up a postcard of a Lao lady dressed in traditional clothing and it made me think about how the photograph was taken.

The bamboo bridge spans the river that separates the village from the main town. The foreigner, laden with expensive camera equipment, comes to a halt behind her, hesitant to follow.

            ‘It’s safe,’ Pualani says, in English, their common language. He smiles and steps onto the crude construction, which creaks as it accommodates his weight. She doesn’t tell him that in monsoon season, when the river swells and the rain comes down with a relentless intensity that threatens to destroy everything in its path, the bridge will collapse into a million matchsticks and be swept away by the mighty Mekong. The bridge is rebuilt every year.

            The photographer comes from France, commissioned by an international magazine to take pictures of her village. Pualani’s only knowledge of France comes from the television and her occasional trips to Luang Prabang, where there is an ex-pat community of old men worn out by life in the West.

            He is not their first foreign visitor, nor will he be their last. The tourists pile out of minivans clutching their rucksacks and bottles of water, with sunburnt shoulders and pasty white legs like uncooked chickens. The local children, dressed in traditional costume, crowd around them, holding out their hands for sweets and dollars, exchanging cash for selfies.

            Pualani senses that this visit is different. The photographer is serious, almost reverent, as he silently appraises the tiny thatched huts on wooden stilts and the ubiquitous rust coloured sand that swirls in the breeze. Pualani feels self-conscious of her home as she imagines the Frenchman’s fancy Parisian apartment.

            ‘May I?’ he says to her, pointing to the camera.

            Pualani wants to say no. She is not pretty like the younger women in the village; only her husband finds her attractive these days. She does not know where to stand or how to look as the Frenchman adjusts the lens and waves the camera in her face. She can feel the heat rise in her cheeks and a giggle lodge in her throat. He stops and scrutinises the back of the camera where she knows the digital images are displayed. She waits nervously. Will he want more?

            ‘Parfait,’ he mutters, moving past her and into the village where he is besieged by a group of kids, pulling his trousers and leading him to the river bank. Pualani retires to the shade where the other women sit, watching. They shift to make room for her and share their sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.

            ‘A handsome man,’ one observes.

            ‘A rich, handsome man,’ says another, nudging Pualani and the laughter that had been threatening to escape since she met the foreigner breaks free.

            In years to come, Pualani will wonder if the photographer chose her image from the hundreds of pictures he took that day (he did); if her face was captured and printed in a glossy magazine bought and scrutinised by people all over the world (it was); and if she will ever see a copy (she won’t).

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