Things that money just cant buy
was slowly getting used to the strong smell of fish as our loaded little
pickup made its way through Laos southern beauty
just come back from the most magical week I ever had. In fact, it
was so amazing that even the story I am about to tell couldnt
shake those stars out of my eyes.
Don Det is at Laos southern end, in a place called the 4,000
islands; or in Lao, Si Phan Don. Ah, the wonderful musicality of
that foreign name as each word tickles your tongue. It's enough
to make me close my eyes and smell the ever flowing Mekong right
beneath me; hear it travel down to Cambodia carrying with it the
mysteries of neighboring Vietnam.
Separated only by the thin wooden floor of my little straw hut (almost
blown away my second night in a storm that would have caused a complete
blackout if it werent for the already non existant electricity)
I could feel that river with me, under me, in me. I bathed in it's dark
and somewhat muddy waters. I woke up to its hushed roar. I walked along
it on the narrow virgin paths of the island. Its a tiny island,
barely 30 minutes from one end to the other and yet a complete world in
itself. Ragged t-shirts that used to be white on tanned Lao children leading
the familys water buffalo to bath in the cool Mekong waters. They
were too busy playing self-invented games with stones and other bits and
pieces to notice me. That was the beauty of it, something one I could
not find in Thailand. It was the beauty of children, too busy in their
own world, to even notice me. A warm greeting of "sabadi" was
the most attention I could hope of getting, and its what made it
all so real.
A week on Don Det couldnt have lasted long enough. Soon it was time
to move on and leave that little paradise. The journey to and from Don
Det was a festival of vehicles. Buses of various sizes, tuk tuks, motorcycles
and boats, all moved, drove, floated and bumped along the roads, paths
and rivers to and from this island.
I decided to make a stop on the way back at the bigger island of Don Khong.
A night in a hotel with hot running water and a fan strangely only made
me miss my fanless wooden hut, with no running water and too short a mattress.
The next step of the journey was getting from Don Khong to Pakse, the
biggest city in south Laos and home of the southern border with Thailand
and hordes of little Thai pests selling you anything from everything.
The next day started when the 6am pickup truck taking me from Don Khong
to the closest town, Pakse, left at 7.30am. I got on the almost full truck
and squeezed in at the very end, right between a cute and giggly 20 something
year old and a huge basket of fish. A few minutes into the ride, I saw
an old, wrinkly little woman with twinkling eyes, who was sitting further
down putting a fish into a basket. Now where did THAT come from, I wondered,
and proceeded to watch her catch another fish- this time I saw that it
seemed to be falling from the sky
were the early and already quite
hot hours of the morning getting to me? A second glance cleared it up,
though, as I saw that they were flying from some container on the roof,
(now this made SO much more sense..!)
She was catching them through the opening of the side of the pickup and
placing them in the basket at her feet. I was slowly getting used to the
strong smell of fish as our loaded little pickup made its way through
Laos southern beauty. As I was saying my inner goodbyes to Don Det
and its beautiful Mekong waters there was no denying that the odor of
fresh (I suppose if its going to smell like fish, it might as well
be fresh, no?!) was getting stronger due to the many fish falling, still
alive, from the roof and into the basket in the middle of the pickup.
We continued on, passing the never-ending magnificent countryside view,
little villages that have yet to have earned map rights appearing and
disappearing on the sides of the non-existent road. The solemn blue skies
I had spent hours staring at seemed to be going so fast that the clouds
whirled in their midst and suddenly the pickup started slowing down. We
went over a small bump and sped up again, the clouds whirling about creating
milkshake skies. Only later did my friend, who was lucky enough to be
seated in front, tell me that a duck had been crossing the road, and the
driver, as if to give it a chance, slowed down, but did not bother to
go as far as to steer away from the poor thing (may it rest in peace).
We kept going. The early hours of the morning didnt prevent the
Lao women in the next stop from shoving various meats on sticks in our
faces (not a pretty sight when youre wishing for a coffee). Three
men make their way between the meat-on-a-stick sellers and the bags of
sticky rice dangling from little girls hands, and squeeze into an
invisible space in front of me, at the very edge of the truck. I reorganize
my limbs accordingly, and notice the still giggling 20 something year
old watching me with much amusement.
As we drove on I suddenly heard a weird sppppcchhhhllllshshsh sound, and
immediately turn my head to see what happened. I could see the guy sitting
next to me on the edge looking quite alarmed as he lifted up his foot,
gazing at it with disgust. His whole foot was brown and his face a pattern
of brown dots. I still wasnt sure what had happened when I wiped
a tiny brown spot off my face and realized, suddenly, that the smell of
fish, to which I had gotten quite used to, had been taken over by a smell
MUCH stronger...could it be possible that wed
as I sadly realized that, yes, we had run over a huge pile of shit, and
I hate to think what would have happened if those three men hadnt
shielded me from the worst
As a token of my appreciation I immediately took out my very useful baby
wipes and handed them out to anyone who needed them, starting with the
poor guy who had the stuff all over his face. Needless to say, they were
quite thankful, and before long the smell of fish once again overtook
the previous one, (who said smell wasnt a relative thing?) and we
drove on, the gentle wind in our faces, whizzing past beautiful Lao villages,
watching long forgotten childhoods of nakedness and innocence.
I got quite a scare as the truck skidded to a sudden stop, and we all
got out, only to find out that one of the tires had exploded. I wasnt
sure what to do, so my falang friends and I took our cue from our fellow
locals, who stepped off the truck and seemed to get quite comfortable
on the side of the road. The Lao women sitting in a fashionable new way
on their high heels, the men sitting in groups, smoking. We figured it
was going to be a while. Our truck left to get a new tire and we sat there,
amidst a group of Laos, watching as they acted as if the incident was
no more than pure routine. After about half an hour the truck returned.
We gratefully got into the fish smelling pickup, and continued on, the
wind in our faces, thoughts of upcoming Thailand and home. The bumps on
the road lulled us into a peaceful inner mantra. Not even 5 minutes pass
What? Not again?!
Another tire had exploded, or was it the same one? Im not sure which
is better. We all knew the drill by now, and proceeded to step out of
the truck as if wed done this at least a few dozen times. Another
truck, half the size of ours and going in the opposite direction, stopped,
and started unloading its huge load of cabbages, pineapples, and other
fruits and veggies. As I sit there (not my high heels, but I would have
if Id had any) wondering what they're doing. Since were in
the middle of nowhere, why would they want to unpack the truck?
I started getting suspicious when I noticed that as the cabbages were
coming out, our bags were coming off the first truck. I was starting to
get the picture, but thought that because they know that us tourists have
to get to the border on time, they are doing us a favor and take us.
I mean, its not like there was any chance that all of us would fit into
that tiny pickup.
Or was there?
Well, I though wrong. I watched in amazement as the huge group of people
disappeared from the road and onto the roof of the tiny truck. (I didnt
know that the Lao were into magic) within 2 minutes there was no one standing
on the road. And so it was that our drivers cousin took us to Pakse.
The 2 hour journey came to an end four and a half hours after it had begun.
It was a very long goodbye, one that seemed to suit leaving Don Det. And
anyways, what's a few hours in turn for adventures that money just can't
© Shira Greeen
- August 2002
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