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Posted by Jessica on Apr 25, 2006
Aprons and Sporks

Before Tim and I left for this trip we used to visit store after store to get ideas of the kind of things (or “kit” as our British friends like to call it) we would bring along with us. Camping stores, sporting good stores, travel stores, dollar stores…you name it, we went to it. We’d look at stores in Philadelphia when we were at home, and in New York or Maryland when we visited Tim’s family, and in Ohio when we visited mine.

One of the stores we visited in Philly was "I Goldberg". It’s an army surplus store of sorts, and on a rather rainy Sunday in October 2004 we found ourselves wandering around inside of it. We were only window shopping at the time, but we thought it was a good idea to do some recon on the store to see if it was worth returning to in the future.

Every where we turned inside the store was something else we wanted to buy: electrical tape, rope, utensils, bags, water purifiers, clothes, shoes. We pulled everything off the shelves and out of the bins and would hold it up to one another and say, “What about this? Wouldn’t this help keep our things dry in the rain?” or “We might need really strong dental floss stuff, right? Maybe we should get some?”

We spent two hours scouring the store. And in those moments, I Goldberg held the mother load of good traveling kit. Excited with our finds, we vowed to return to buy everything we would need for our trip and then some.

A few weeks later, our pockets stuffed with cash ready to spend, we returned to I Goldberg to make some of the first purchases for our trip. Other than our backpacks which we had bought back in July, we’d only purchased a few things here and there. So this was it, this was the day we would walk back to Tim’s apartment loaded down with all of the fun kit that would be accompanying us on our round-the-world trip. We imagined unloading our purchases back home: all of our new things would cover the bed from top to bottom, and we would take a photo to document the momentous occasion. We were giddy, we were excited, and we were ready to buy.

Fifteen minutes later, we reappeared from the store defeated and with a very small bag. In the bag was some travel duct tape and 2 heavy duty sporks. Our total purchase cost $5.

Back at Tim’s apartment, we gently unpacked our new kit from its very small bag. The travel duct tape and the 2 sporks sat quietly on one tiny corner of the bed.

Looking at our purchases, I reassuringly said, “At least they are really nice sporks. And that duct tape is so small, it won’t take up any room at all.”

Later that afternoon, with our new purchases safely tucked away in the closet, we coined a new term: “I Goldberg Syndrome” or simply “I Goldberg.”

Southeast Asia is big on night markets. Flip through just about any travel guide to Southeast Asia and you’ll see a notation about a night market. Thailand alone has two famous night markets: one in Bangkok and the other in Chang Mai. Some tourists travel specifically to Chang Mai just to shop in the night market. So they’re a big deal here, for tourists and locals alike.

In South America we had only seen one night market. We happened across it randomly in Mendoza, Argentina, but we were both struck with how nice it seemed. It felt so much more, well, atmospheric than a market during the daytime. With small lights illuminating their wares, we’d weave our way through the various artisans’ stalls to see what they had to offer. There were some musicians playing in the park nearby, and their music wafted over us as we tried to find a new treasure. And since the small lights from each stall would fall short of lighting the entire path, we’d move in and out of darkness as we made our way along the entire market.

When we arrived in the small town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos we had no idea they had a night market. It was only as we walked down their main street in the late afternoon on our first day there that we learned they had one. The sellers were still setting up their stalls, but the sneak peek we had as we made our way down the street (packs on our backs and in search of housing for the night) made Tim and I both anxious to return the next evening to scope things out.

It was a Tuesday night and Tim, Klaus, and I had just finished dinner at a local Laos family restaurant. Tim and I announced that tonight was the night for night market recon. Klaus announced tonight was the night he would go cause trouble on the message boards used by other travelers on Lonely Planet. Content and will full tummies, we agreed to part and meet again the next morning for breakfast.

Making our way towards the night market Tim and I were excited with anticipation. Having sold virtually everything we own before leaving on this trip, we are in the perfect position to “start over again” or, in other words, to buy lots of things for the new place we’ll have together when we get home. From all around the world we already have chess boards (three, to be exact), Turkish pillows, candle holders, cooking utensils, oven mitts (from Cambodia, no less), and various other trinkets (all of which we look forward to using to torture our friends with when they visit us by saying, “And this little thing is from Ecuador, but this thing is from Greece.”) So there was no telling what new treasure we might find to bring home with us.

“Ok, but we’re just looking tonight, we’re not buying yet. We’re just looking to see what we can buy tomorrow or the next day,” we told one another.

The street had been split down the middle, creating two aisles of stalls on each side of the street. The night sky was dark and the only lights visible were the yellow street lamps and whatever light each vendor had positioned near their area. Each vendor had placed their wares on top of the mat they had laid directly on the pavement or on a small bamboo stand they had erected behind them. And as people moved slowly by each make-shift store they would hear the gentle calls of, “Madam, Monsieur, buy here please.”

Vendors squatted, sat, or slept alongside their wares. T-shirts, bed spreads, pillow covers, silver chopsticks, sandals, cooking aprons, postcards, paintings, wallets, purses, lamps, wall hangings, silver boxes, chess sets, jewelry…pretty much everything and anything you would want to buy (and some stuff you wouldn’t dream of buying) was there for sale. And the prices were extremely affordable. Many times we were sure we must have heard the price wrong, only to see the vendor type on their calculator the amount we had heard the first time. (The most amazing thing is the prices we were hearing were their initial prices before bargaining. Since we weren’t buying we didn’t bargain because it can be rude to get into a bargaining session when you have no intention of buying.)

We spent nearly two hours walking from stall to stall in the Luang Prabang night market. It was a shopping heaven.

In our room later that evening we made a list of things we thought we might want to buy the next day. It was a long list. We tallied up the dollar amounts each item might cost. It was a big dollar amount (well, at least by Southeast Asian market standards). We debated how annoying it was going to be to travel with an additional bag (or two) through the rest of Laos. We decided it was worth it. And so it was agreed: the next evening, we were going shopping.

“I think it’s I Goldberg,” Tim said to me the next evening.

We had been wandering around the night market for nearly an hour, and had nothing in our hands to show for it yet. Nothing was appealing to us anymore, the prices we were being quoted before bargaining were much higher, and we felt exhausted instead of excited. The night market which had ignited our imagination just the night before only seemed to be sizzling out that evening.

Even the mood of the other people shopping seemed different. The previous night there were smiles and laughs. On this night there was one arrogant man who went to two different stalls where he would proceed to bargain for some random item, and then upon hearing the vendor’s price would loudly demand to know, “Do I have idiot stamped on my forehead?!” before stomping away to the next stall, leaving a very confused and upset vendor in his wake. (Tim and I both agreed that if we saw him a third time that we were going to have to say something to him. Luckily for us and for the other vendors, he seemed to have stalked off after his second temper tantrum.)

It appeared, like the I Goldberg store in Philadelphia, we were not destined to buy many things from the Luang Prabang night market. And so it was with little enthusiasm that we decided to circle the market “just one more time, just in case.”

Tim and I love to cook together, and so it’s only natural that one of the things that was most appealing to us at the night market were the cooking aprons. They were everywhere and in many shades, all with little depictions of Laos country life sewn in bright colors on the front.

When we had explored the night market the previous evening, we had seen dozens of aprons that we wanted to buy. On this night, though, during the past hour we had seen exactly none. And so it was, of course, on our final circle of the market that we saw some aprons we might want to buy.

Stopping in front of the stall we glanced around for the vendor. And after a minute of looking, we finally saw her: curled up next to her bamboo display behind a pile of other aprons.

While trying to decide if it would be inappropriate to wake her up or if we should try our luck at another stall, her eyes opened and focused on our forms standing in front of her. Immediately she popped up with a huge two-tooth smile spreading across her weathered face. She looked like a little friendly grandmother and was probably around 60 or 70 years old. And she was, without a doubt, simply adorable.

Pointing to the apron that had caught our eye, we asked if I could try it on. Still grinning, she handed it to me.

At that moment, the vendor in the stall next to us woke up too. Seeing us standing with her competitor, she immediately began to point to the similar looking aprons on the bamboo pole behind her, implying we should buy her aprons instead. But our vendor was quick-witted and began miming how her neighbor had been sleeping for too long and we shouldn’t buy from a sleeping vendor. Laughing with her, we agreed that we would buy from her and not her sleepier neighbor. Amused and still sleepy, her neighbor didn’t seem to mind the arrangement.

And so it proceeded for the next several minutes: the sleepy neighbor would point to the grandmother’s different aprons suggesting which ones we should try on, and the grandmother would pass all of them to us at once. And after a few tries, we found one that I fell in love with.

Seeing that I was happy, the grandmother reached for a plastic bag for my apron. She hadn’t realized yet that we were in the market for two aprons. Then she saw Tim trying on some more aprons and both her and the sleepy neighbor broke out into fits of giggles. They started pointing at me instead of Tim, indicating he should pass the apron to me to wear. (One can assume from their message that Laos men do not do much cooking.) Tim smiled and said, “It’s ok. It’s for me.”

And so it proceeded for the next several minutes: Tim tried on more aprons, the grandmother and her sleepy neighbor giggled and smiled like school children, and I would point at Tim and say, “He cooks too” which would only bring on more laughter. It couldn’t have been a better moment. And after a few tries, we found an apron that Tim fell in love with too.

That night, back in our room, we gently unpacked our purchases a small bag. On a little tiny corner of our hotel bed sat 4 little silver boxes and 2 adorable Laos cooking aprons. We wouldn’t be trudging through the rest of Laos with a huge bag full of purchases after all. But we would be leaving with a wonderful memory of two adorable Laos women.

The “I Goldberg Syndrome” has happened to us on more than one occasion on our trip. We assume it’s because we wear ourselves out so much doing recon on a store or a market, that we’re too tired to buy anything once the next time comes around again. The good thing about this, though, is that we’ve avoided buying a lot of things that we really don’t need.

That isn’t to say, of course, that we really needed 4 silver boxes or 2 cooking aprons from Laos. I’ve made it this far in life without silver boxes, and neither of us have ever cooked wearing an apron before. But I have a pretty good feeling about our purchases from the night market in Luang Prabang. I think they’ll still be with us a few years from now. After all, remember the sporks and the duct tape we bought before the trip? They’re still going strong 14 months into it.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Ten Amusing Photos from Laos

Ten Amusing Photos from Laos

Walking on Waterfalls

Walking on Waterfalls

A Taste of Laos

A Taste of Laos

April 25, 2006 at 7:09am
Oh Yeah
April 25, 2006 at 11:31am
Yea, I'm Number 2! Wait a miniute… why does that sound so wrong? ;)
other jess
April 25, 2006 at 12:23pm
I am hoping that you guys pose for a picture in your new aprons. They're wonderful.
April 25, 2006 at 7:27pm
You can't always get what you want…You can't always get what you want…You can't always get what you want…but if you try sometime, you get what you need.

I was about to go to Laos and find you guys.

April 25, 2006 at 10:42pm
Hurray! The aprons are great. We had a large Laotian population in my college town, and seeing the aprons made me think of getting to know their culture, second-hand anyway… beautiful, special people :)
April 29, 2006 at 4:11am
OMG mega aprons! All you need now is to learn to cook. Gosh Laos looks amazing.
May 30, 2006 at 8:26am
I'm catching up on my reading, slowly and surely! A former colleague of mine told me about the east Asian tradition of night markets (she's Taiwanese). When you think about it, it's quite a good idea for all those folks who can't hit a market during regular business hours.

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