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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Hacktreks World Journeys - LAOS


The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grown and the Lao listen to it grow’

How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world!’ –
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

There must be a point at which the mountains end and the clouds begin. Today, it is impossible to tell where that point is. There is a gray blanket of dull light covering the rice paddies and occasional village that are spread between the towering slopes extending from the sky. Under the sun’s watchful gaze the valley is normally quilted in a hundred different hues of green. The colours are hiding from the clouds today. Little can be seen but the wise faces and impotent horns of the water buffalo, who have retreated as deeply into the water as can be permitted by their need to breathe.

As the sky grows darker still, one of the few buffalo not yet submerged wanders languidly across my path. He shivers uncontrollably. His muscled flank appears liquid – a velvet wave breaking on an unseen shore. As he ambles towards the water, synergy sends a shiver through my spine, down my arms and into my hands. I grip the handlebars of my motorcycle tighter than usual to combat the shiver.

I am somewhere on Route 13, heading north from Vang Vieng in Laos. Despite filling the tank, the needle on the fuel gauge has been lazily pointing at ‘E’ ever since I left the service station - that was over an hour ago. It used to return to it’s correct reading following a thump with a clenched fist but nowadays it seems to have lost any sign of energy or enthusiasm for its job. My side of the road has recently been resurfaced and even at 40 mph the gravel seems to take on a liquidity. Keeping the motorcycle from sliding out from under me seems near impossible. The opposite side of the road is free of chippings but is carpeted with potholes. The lesser of the two evils seems to be to cross over and avoid these littered craters and the occasional oncoming vehicle. Whichever side of the road I chose there is no refuge from the hail of gravel that rains down on me as the bloated local buses growl on by. With limbs protruding from windows and a eclectic assortment of possessions and even motor-scooters strapped loosely to the roof these six wheeled monsters take on a manic life of their own. After slaloming between two dangerously positioned potholes I shift down from fourth to third gear with my left heel to accelerate back to my cruising speed. As I twist with my right hand I hunch down my head and shoulders in a primitive attempt at streamlining myself against the rushing air. I focus ahead, trying not to contemplate the fatal potential of an unavoided pothole.

I see the sky about to rain. I wonder if it will actually open. Like a schoolyard bully it has been threatening all day without acting out it’s damp threat. Rain is no fun to bike in, but it does not worry me as much as the dark. Night falls by 6pm at this time of year in Laos, but today’s lack of light will mean an even earlier dusk. The pothole’s menace will increase tenfold after the sun has fallen behind the hills – here the night can be the devil’s day. As for the level of fuel I am carrying , I do err towards caution and look in the tank every thirty minutes or so but I am not worried. Of all the lonely highways in the world to run dry on I feel that I will always be safe here in Laos. The thought of the first pick-up truck to drive by stopping and giving me a ride or a refuel is not so much a question as a reassuring certainty in my mind.

The Laotians are an amazing people. Resilient. Many have faced adversity and oppression with a smile. There are many secrets hidden behind those silent smiles. Secrets and strength. In my experience the Lao people will always go to extremes to ensure their hospitality is perfect. Once I was staying at a guesthouse in Vientiane, a grand old French Colonial building near the banks of the Mekong river. One morning, when I asked for my usual breakfast of bread and jam my host ran lightly on her bare feet to the kitchen. A moment later I heard the familiar sound of a kick-started scooter. Through the window I saw our congenial host speeding away down the street. A few minutes later she returned – with a bag of bread hanging from each of the handlebars, and another in the basket on the front of her scooter. Soon she appeared from the kitchen with bread, jam and coffee. The bread was fantastic. One of the few welcome remnants of French Colonialism is the baking in Laos. It is safe to assume that in many other places the words ‘no bread’ would have been curtly delivered in a toneless voice from the expressionless face of a bored waiter. In Laos it seems that kindness is often shown even when there are no obvious rewards to be gained.

I slow down as I pass a picturesque village - carefully constructed wooden abodes with woven cloth adding warm kaleidoscopic colour. I lift my left hand from the motorcycle to return the waves of the women and children gathered by the roadside. One woman, cradling her baby gently, lifts the infants arm and a miniature wave is born. When the village is almost behind me I stop to take a photo of this scene. The shutter clicks as three children pedal their bicycles through the frame. I take one more picture, sans enfants, and remount my idling steed. As I am adjusting the chin strap on my helmet I see that a little further up the road the three children are turning their bicycles down a stony track. The compass needle of my mind swings and I realise that the track must lead to the river. I share with many travellers that urge to take the perfect picture. That one image that sums it all up, that captures it all. That 35mm of celluloid that says ‘this is what travelling was for me’. Click. Done. No need to try and reach for the words, only to loose grip and land on mediocrity.

Picturelust gets the better of me and I decide to leave the highway and head down the enigmatic track. The looming threat of the gray sky is forgotten for now, replaced by fantasies of taking pictures as evocative and timeless as the great combat photographers of the sixties and seventies. There is little self delusion here. When riding a motorcycle through a land that time has forgotten with a camera slung over my shoulder it does not require much imagination to empathize with the Dana Stones and Sean Flynns who roamed Indochina like pioneers on metal horses, searching for a new photographic frontier against, what for them would prove, the fatal backdrop of war. Of course that is where such comparisons end as I have no intention of booking myself in to that great youth hostel in the sky just yet – at least not until I can afford an en suite anyway.

As I turn left the road is immediately replaced by a rutted and dusty track. I shift down to second gear, knowing that balance and acceleration will be of far more use than speed here. As I pass the three children on their bicycles I sound the horn. Despite six legs pedaling furiously to keep up with me, even at my slowest I loose them all to quickly. I pass the occasional house but other than that all I see are fields. Intermittently I spot figures in conical straw hats working amongst the green – all are too far away to determine age or gender. The mountains that ran parallel to me on Route 13 are now straight ahead. The track is sloping downward on a gentle gradient and I know that the river must be close. I turn one final bend and there it is – the road abruptly ends as it is intersected by dark blue running water. There are simply constructed fishing nets tethered or staked from shore to shore and several wooden kayaks are resting on the muddy bank. I turn off the engine and remove my helmet. The sound of flowing water is a welcome serenade after the muffled company of a whining engine. I stretch my arms and legs and then set about taking some photographs. Maybe it’s the dull gray light, but I don’t feel as though I am being successful; I decide to save the film so I switch the camera off and replace the lens cap.

No sooner than I have kickstarted the noisy engine back to life than I start to feel the odd drop of rain land on me. Now the drops are becoming more frequent and in less than a minute I am under a torrential downpour. As I sit here with the motorcycle in neutral, the options, as I see them, are few: head for home in the rain or remain here and get soaked whilst hoping it stops only for it not to stop, therefore riding home in the dark and the rain. I turn the bike around and set off up the track. Although it has been raining for only a few minutes the road ahead has quickly started to resemble a museum display of a Flanders battlefield. Foot high parapets rise between flooded trenches. As I slowly slip and slide along I no longer feel born to be wild. Instead, I feel a strong desire to being sitting in a jeep, dry, with four wheels planted firmly on the ground and maybe a hot drink in my hands. I quickly purge such thoughts from my head as there is no choice but to keep on.
I balance with my feet, walking the motorcycle through a particularly treacherous stretch of road. I concentrate so intently on this muddy task that I don’t even notice the house on my left. My attention is refocused by a shouting voice. The only word I can make out is ‘motorbike’. I look up to see a girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen, running down the path from the house to the road. She is waving at me, shouting and smiling. Still the only word making sense to me is ‘motorbike’. I stop walking the motorcycle as she approaches. As she stands aside of me, ‘turn off motorbike’ she says in heavily accented English. ‘Why?’.
‘Turn off motorbike. Come in house’. She points at the sky, ‘wait for rain’.
The words are hardly out of her mouth but I need no more persuasion to get out of the rain. I instantly kill the engine and messily (thanks to the mud) get off the motorcycle. Abandoning the motorcycle at the roadside, we jog, with her in the lead, up to the house and onto the covered porch.

The rain is incredibly loud. It is hitting the corrugated iron roof of the porch and resonating somewhere between a symphonic cacophony and rapturous applause. I stand in the centre of the porch and take in the scene. On my left a man of about fifty silently mends a fishing net with homemade tools. On my right a woman, of about the same age, is rapt in her needlework. Ahead of me a doorway leads inside this simple dwelling. ‘Sit please’. My young host pulls a chair away from the wall and places it next to me. I sit down facing the doorway. My new acquaintance sits herself in a chair just to the right of the doorway. With the others sat in a quasi-semicircle around me it either feels like I am holding court or about to be interrogated. I am unsure which. After a moment my discomfort must be unfortunately apparent. A smile from near the door: ‘my name is Hatsadome’. She gestures, ‘this is my mother and this is my father’. She then says something to her parents in Lao. They both look up from their work and give me warm smiles. I smile back. We understand little, if not nothing, of each others words and yet we seem to share in a language. We understand the hellos, the goodbyes, the thankyous, the yeses and the noes of a few tightened facial muscles. Whilst frowning hides the eyes, smiling brings out a gleam, a sparkle of kindness in the eyes. Hatsadome’s mother sets aside her fabric, needles and thread and disappears through the doorway into the dark interior of the house. Her father is once again absorbed in his repairs, maybe contemplating the awful consequences of a damaged net in this agrarian culture.

I am alone with Hatsadome. She asks my name. ‘Tim’. My age. ‘24’. In simple, yet highly effective, English we continue to pose questions and offer answers for each other. I discover her knowledge of English comes from the classroom, where many young Lao students are starting to learn my native tongue. Tourism is clearly starting to bloom in Laos. The effects can be seen and heard, from the concrete hotels rising phoenix like from the ashes of the countryside to the commonplace use of English. I am not qualified to speculate on the long-term negative effects of this tourism but I am certainly guilty of enjoying this beautiful country. Hatsadome sees English as her means to get out of Laos. She tells me of her dreams of living in the west – maybe even the United States. I smile back at her and tell her these are good dreams even though, in my heart, I feel the opposite. It is not for me to shatter her dreams. I can not tell her about immigrant labour, inner-city slums and fast food diets – it is not my place to reveal the American Dream. Instead, I enjoy her company as she enjoys mine.
Her mother returns to the porch and hands me a white porcelain cup. ‘Khop chai lai lai’, thank you very much, I say. My only Lao, yet I find it rolling off my tongue many times each day as the Lao peoples kindness never goes unnoticed. The warm cup heats my hands. I take a sip. Beautiful. It is thick dark Lao coffee with sweetened condensed milk. This is the drink which I jump eagerly out of bed for each morning. Stronger than an Italian espresso and sweeter than the latte’s of a corporate conglomeration of coffeehouses. This is fine coffee indeed. Give a New Yorker a cup of these grounds and his heart will palpitate whilst he turns into a hyperactive parody of Woody Allen. The Lao people are a naturally mellow people. So mellow and relaxed in fact that one can only wonder what would happen if there were no caffeine in Laos. This may be the genus of a phrase I read somewhere; ‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grown and the Lao listen to it grow’. Kindness springs forth from their relaxed attitude and simple pleasures, such as sharing their nationally treasured coffee, bring smiles to their faces.

I sip on the aromatic coffee, listen to the rain and contemplate the situation. It feels as though I have stepped inside of someone else’s story. A story that I have peered into from an early age. Poem, prose and parable have exposed me to this subject. From the Bible to Kerouac, via Shakespeare and Steinbeck, every genre (and possibly every culture) has its tale of the weary traveler given refuge by a kind stranger. From truck-stops to stable mangers it has been, until today, just another staple of storytelling convention. Maybe one day I will look for metaphorical significance in the unrepeatable experience of this temporary bond between strangers, but for today I am sheltered from the storm, enjoying a warm coffee and this family’s simple kindness.

Without warning the rain ends as abruptly as it started. As I am nearing the end of my coffee I tell Hatsadome that I must be back in Vain Vieng before nightfall. She seems to understand, yet she seems saddened by my inevitable departure. I stand and hand her my coffee cup. She passes the cup to her mother who says something to her. ‘My mother says you are very nice man’ says Hatsadome. I look at her mother who smiles at me. How can she tell if I am nice or not, we don’t even understand each other? Probably the same way that I can tell she is kind, gentle and caring – the smile.

I put my hands together palm to palm, fingers pointing skyward at chest level and bow gently whilst saying thank you in Lao to each of them in turn. They return the gesture. I walk to my waiting motorcycle and put my helmet on. With my back to them I have a slight grin on my face as I know they are all watching me. I make a painstaking pantomime of checking the motorcycle over and then I kickstart it. All three of them are now standing on the edge of the porch. I gun the engine in neutral for dramatic effect and am pleased when Hatsadome giggles delightfully. As I look at the three of them I realize that I don’t even know her parents names. I never will now. I will probably forget their faces as my memories of today fade but I know I will never forget their simple kindness or their smiles – which are as strong and as warm as their coffee.

I wave to the family. They wave back. I shift in to gear and pull away. The road is drying remarkably quickly following the storm. I sit astride of my two wheels and my four strokes of internal combustion with a smile on my face. In my rear view mirror the three waving figures are giving way to the trail of dust in my wake. In front of me there is some sun creeping through the clouds, shafts of brilliant light cutting through the gray, illuminating the mountain tops.

© Tim Ashby 2003

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