How do you swallow a buffalo?
There’s a trick to it, which I was taught some dozen years ago, deep in the jungle, at Christmas dinner, by a man who’d stolen everything from me.
And now, I’ll teach it to you.
Then, I was a young woman. Fresh out of liberal arts college and backpacking willy-nilly through Southeast Asia with a Belgian hippie I’d insta-soul-bonded with over peanuts and warm whiskey in a guesthouse lounge in Northern Thailand. We were freshly in love. We were in for trouble.
On Christmas Eve, our rickety Mekong River boat docked at an isolated village in Northern Laos. We tramped up the hill into town, where we found a little bungalow perched at the steep edge of a mud cliff. It was for rent. It was four dollars a night. Its owner was a man named Sengdala. He shook our hands hello, showed us the outhouse, and gave us a padlock to secure the hut’s front door.
Sengdala seemed to own half the buildings in that hardscrabble little town, including a half-dozen other huts and a bakery-restaurant across the way. His prize possession was a flickering console television. To us, it wasn’t much, but by local standards, it was quite a lot.
The Belgian and I spent Christmas Eve in the town’s only bar. I’d contracted E. coli poisoning from a dirty pool in Chiang Mai a few weeks earlier, and as I sat on the dirt floor chasing antibiotics with a sweating can of Fanta — the only thing that cured my fevers and dizzy spells — I struck up a conversation with a small, dark-eyed boy called Jai. He was 12, and Sengdala’s nephew. Jai spoke excellent English, and he, too, loved sugary soda. The three of us sat up past midnight, slurping Fantas and snapping photos with my camera. Everything seemed fine.
There exists a kind of darkness in this world that Westerners simply cannot conceive of. An inky black only possible in the poorest corners of the earth, where electricity is scarce and the jungle swallows the moon before midnight.
It was that kind of darkness I peered into after we’d said goodnight to Jai and sat squatted before a smoldering campfire at the side of the road near our hut. I tried to source my sudden discomfort. It felt like we were being watched. Somewhere out past the fire’s flicker, something was waiting. But I could see nothing. My belly rumbled. We retired to our hut.
We awoke eight hours later to find that all our things were gone: money, medicine, passports, plane tickets, cameras. All gone. Someone had broken in and stolen them while we slept. It was Christmas morning.
In disbelief, we searched beneath the hut and in the surrounding bushes, then wandered into the road, dazed. We walked to the Buddhist temple at the north end of town, looking for help. It was empty, save a roughhewn altar. What else was left? We hit our knees.
A can of Fanta sat on the altar before a gaudy likeness of Buddha. A tiny pink straw jutted out from the hole. I started to sniffle. The Belgian reached for me, and we groped in the cloudy half-light, beyond words.
A boy monk arrived. We disentangled ourselves and he rattled an old coffee can. A few coins clinked noisily. I reached into my pocket. My hands closed around a Thai coin. It was the equivalent of 50 cents, and all I had left in the world. I considered tossing it in, but then what? In my darkest moments, I’d occasionally muttered out quick prayers, but I’d never had that kind of faith. We departed, embarrassed.
Hang religion; we would investigate. Our hut door was constructed from a plank of flexible wood. If you pulled on it, it bent just far enough to allow a small body passage through. I thought of Jai.
We found Sengdala at the bakery and begged him for help. He summoned the police chief, an eighty-five-year-old man in a sunbaked blue tracksuit. The Chief chewed on a frayed cigar, consulted with Sengdala, and a decision was made: there would be no police report.
“It’s just too weird,” Sengdala said, smiling carefully. “You drink too much. Lose your bags at the bar.”
The chief was scratching notes onto a water-stained pad, squinting periodically off at the muddy Mekong, kicking the earth with his sandal. Clearly, he’d be no help.
The Belgian raked fingers through his mop of dreadlocks. “But what can we do?” he cried. “We have no money even to eat a breakfast!”
Clucking his tongue, Sengdala led us to his nearby restaurant. He exchanged terse words with his wife in a kitchen doorway. An hour later, we were served two tiny saucers of curried vegetables.
After breakfast, we scored a pack of smokes and $20 US dollars off a sympathetic British tourist passing through town.
The Belgian spent the rest of the day padding barefoot up and down the length of the dirt road, peeking inside of huts, searching for Jai. I sulked in my hammock, watching pods of kayakers whoop and shout in the river below. I considered the jungle, where land mines lay untripped, where there were no paths out, and the world suddenly seemed so much bigger and more sinister.
We had no money. I’d lost my medicines. Sendgala was lying, and the nearest phone was a four-hour boat ride away. My belly was growling. I slipped into a dark reverie.
I’d grown up immersed in the Catholic and Buddhist traditions, and I’d been taught that good works were repaid in kind. But that day, my belief in the deep good of the world rattled and wheezed. Karma seemed suddenly like an old, useless saw. I’d returned wallets, taken hands of children lost in crowds. Like most Americans, I considered myself a mostly good person. And this was what I got?
At dusk, Sengdala returned to invite us to dine with him and his brothers. Hunger being more potent than pride, we swallowed our surprise and followed him back to his ramshackle home. There, at a crude, low table, we supped on raw buffalo stomach with mint, scooped up with glutinous palmfuls of sticky rice.
I didn’t want to share a table with Sengdala and his kin. This meat had probably been purchased with the spoils from our overstuffed daypacks, and it would probably make us sick. But I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, except for the saucer of curry; I was in no position to barter with the universe. So I ate.
Our dinner party was subdued; we watched the village sky bleed into blackish blue as the sun dropped behind a jagged spit of mountain. Sengdala confessed, as he offered me more meat, that his daughter would marry the police chief’s son in three day’s time. The picture came clear. I swallowed the buffalo in great, resentful mouthfuls.
“Maybe … your passports come back,” Sengdala offered cryptically, wiping his hands on his pant legs and clucking his tongue.
It wasn’t much to hope for, but it was something. At dusk, we smoked cigarettes and returned to our hut.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Lord of Death and Justice, Yama Dharmaraja, has the body of a man and the head of a buffalo. He rides atop a second buffalo when he travels, meting out justice, and in many depictions, that buffalo’s hooves pin the body of a man to the earth beneath Yama Dharmaraja. The man’s eyes are wild, his bones are smashed. Yama Dharmaraja is fearsome, but he’s supposed to be fair.
Was this just? Some Buddhists believe that when you eat an animal, you eat its anger at having been killed; you eat its sorrow. But I was so young. What had I ever before tasted of sorrow or hard luck? A buffalo had lost its life so I could eat that Christmas meal. I had lost everything so Sengdala could feed it to me. It smacked only of bitterness.
The Belgian and I hung around the village until the trail went cold. We found Jai hovering in the shadow of the town bar a night later, looking frightened. He fled from us. We took to ordering food from Sengdala’s restaurant and charging it to our “tab,” an agreement to which Sengdala and his wife grumpily consented. We were invited to their daughter’s wedding to the police chief’s son a few days after that. We attended, eating all the free food we could stomach, then purchased six grams of opium from a local teenager for $2 from our precious, secret cash stash.
Before we departed, Sengdala presented us with a three-page, $28 bill for the 10 days of lodging and meals. We shrugged our shoulders and pointed to our empty pockets.
“No money? But you eat curry and drink Beer Lao!” he snarled.
“Go ask the thief for your money,” I snarled back.
Sengdala regarded me with murderous eyes. It was time to leave.
To gain reentry back into Thailand, we passed bribes and curried sympathy, begging steely-eyed consulates and lackadaisical customs officers and skeptical backpackers for the requisite stamps and coin. We lost weight and smoked piles of cigarettes and were ripped off on a bag of weed by a corrupt Buddhist monk. We got through.
Weeks later, back on Khao San Road in Bangkok, we heard over the backpacker grapevine that a police official from another city had traveled to the little village and shut down Sengdala’s guesthouses for the rest of the season. Was it true? We’d never know. The Belgian and I parted ways in February, gaunt, tired, never to meet again.
My father bought me a replacement ticket back to the States. I went home. My gut healed, but it would take my heart far longer to repair.
Because you swallow a buffalo the same way you swallow sickness or sorrow: one huge and calamitous gulp at a time, again and again, until finally you reach the crushed and blessed bone.