Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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The Haunted Toolbox

This picture’s baroque lighting is as velvety as The Denial of St Peter, a painting I grew up with in Minneapolis

Sapa, Vietnam: We stumble off our motorbikes after a long day scouring the hills for papermakers.

“What would you like to do tomorrow?” my guide asks.

“Learn how to work with silver,” I say. I’d worked with silver molds before while a sculpture apprentice, and had made simple silver wedding rings in Thailand, but hilltribe silversmithing is something else entirely. Much of the silver in southeast Asia [ex-Indochina] is from French piastres that were later melted into wearable wealth.

“Ok, I’ll take you to a Red Dao hilltribe village and they’ll teach you how to make something with silver,” she says. But what she doesn’t know is that I won’t be allowed to touch the tools. Why? Because I could curse them. Hilltribes believe everything has a spirit inside it, and a foreigner could send the spirits away. Literally freak them out. Or even worse, piss them off.

[“Foreigner” includes westerners like me, or lowland Vietnamese, or anyone not from the Red Dao or related groups.]

Sure, this Mr. Red Dao Smith doesn’t come out and say “You’ll piss off my tool-spirits.” He’s too polite for that, my guide tells me later. “Nope,” he says, “the tools could break.” They’re much sturdier than tools I’ve used in the past. I could pay for new ones – it would just be a few dollars from a local market – but this is his toolbox in a way that goes beyond physical ownership. His spirit has worked with those in the tools for awhile, and they get along just fine without a foreigner putting her grubby hands all over them, thank you very much.

So it was a hands-off experience, but a fascinating one. Here everyone in the family’s gathered around the silversmith to watch his final polish on my earrings with a torch.

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