Sunday, December 21, 2008
One Day in Laos
I've spent a long time uploading this blog and photos. They are all at the top and in screwed up order. I cannot be bothered to fix it. Under the pics is my story of this one day.
Comments: The men eating on the ground. One guy is wiping his face in one. Because he wanted me to take the picture and he wanted to look good. Note the other guys face. He does not want me to take it, but agreed to one.
Little boy with two different expressions. He mostly walked around with a frown, but if he I smiled or poked him, he had the most beautiful smile to return.
Truck. They just decorate them ridiculously.
I would like to point out that this blog is formatted stupidly and it looks really long, but I think thats only because its such a narrow place for the type.
Anyway, no more excuses, read on. Also, I think I fixed it so that anyone can comment without being a registered user...hopefully...
I’m tired. I’m dirty. I’m bruised. My clothes are soaked in more sweat and caked in more dirt than I thought cotton could hold. I’m hungry. I’m cold. I’m bleeding in multiple places for reasons I don’t remember.
I just finished trekking through the jungle in Laos.
I want a beer. I want a hot meal. I want to have the words and the pictures to describe how intense this hike was. How gorgeous this hike was. How utterly amazing this whole experience was. I’ll try. I’ll try.
Shel and I took a boat yesterday, 7 hours, to a little town on the Ou river called Nong Khiaw. We were meant to continue on to another small town, but thought we might just see what this town offered. We found a trek that sounded about our speed and hopefully was not full of “falang” (local word for Caucasians, westerners, crackers, honkies, etc). A little guy tells us to bring boots and trekking sandals. He’s got the water and food. We get in the back of a pickup and head off. After about 2 minutes, we come across a landslide. So we hang out for a few minutes while a tractor clears enough away to pass.
The truck drops us off at a little Hmong village. If you are interested in housing, these people build their huts on the ground. Wooden walls and bamboo leaves for the roof. Apparently a bamboo roof can last up to five years, unlike banana tree leaf roofs at only three. (Keep that in mind if you get trapped on an island with multiple leaf types for your roofing.) Unfortunately, we’d just missed their New Year. From what I’ve read before, it’s a fantastic celebration. They get all dressed in their traditional garb. The singles in the town play a game involving tossing a ball back and forth between partners. From what I read in one village, PDA is encouraged in this game, to the embarrassment of the participants. But we missed that, so we continued on through their rice paddies. A rather grizzled gentleman in an old Soviet style jaunting cap proceeded to follow us along the narrow path. We thought he was just going the same way, but when we stopped for pictures of the landscape he refused to pass. I realized he had been appointed by the village, or perhaps just took it upon himself, to make sure the falang did not disrupt anything. We had a guide with us, but he was from town, and perhaps not to be trusted. Eventually the old man fell away; we’d reached the end of his villages paddies. It’s the sowing season, so it’s not the lush green paddies you see in the movies. Here and there are scattered seedling plots. But mostly its brown squares, each square a different family’s. They build huts in the paddies to break at midday, sometimes to stay in if they work too long. There were the occasional large pig or what I believe is a water buffalo, scattered through the paddies.
Our guide was named Boon-Home, or at least that’s how it’s pronounced. He guided us over streams and through paddy after paddy. I told him that his name sounded like BonHomme in French, or snowman, so I called him that, and joked that he should start his tour company, “Snowman Jungle Treks.”
After a while, we found ourselves in a Khamu village. Their houses are built on stilts. I would guess to avoid flooding. Our guide had mentioned having us buy paper and pencils for the kids, but when we arrived, the only thing to buy was candy. So we did, and it bought us a few pictures of the kids, who were priceless by the way. We watched a woman weave (things white people like: taking pictures of brown people working…) We watched a man deftly maneuver his blade up and down bamboo poles, making ¼ inch wide slats for material for their walls. We watched a little girl carry endless pails of water from the river to a group of elders making Lao-Lao, or local rice whiskey, or moonshine. I had a sip. I did actually view what I believe could only be called a “Squeasel”. A man came up to talk to our guide, holding what was obviously a small rodent, gutted and dried. At the time, I thought this was to be our lunch. I won’t lie; I was a little excited to give it a try. Unfortunately he ran off before I could take a picture, and fortunately or unfortunately, we did not eat in his village. Our guide did scramble up the ladder of a home to buy cigarettes for our local guides from the village. At the time, I thought, Why do we need two more guides? We were now two falang, and three guides. Did Shel and I look that needy? Or perhaps that out of control? Do we put off the impression that we’re going to run rampant through villages setting fire and raping the women?
We were now Becks, Shel, Snowman, Flip Flops and the Silent one. Flip Flops was better in his namesakes than we were in our expensive boots, and the Silent One; rarely a peep, only a blow of the machete.
We set off into the jungle. And for a while, it seemed that these extra guides only came to make noises with their machetes and pretend to do something so they could get paid. As usual when it comes to deep jungle situations, I was wrong. It was easy enough at first, but before I knew it, we were going straight up hill. A tiny narrow path, made for tiny Lao people. I don’t hike, I don’t do uphill. I’m out of shape and before I left for this trip, two doctors told me my heart may be, well, not at peak performance. There were so many times I thought I’d have to be left in the woods. But this was not hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, or even the AT, when a ranger isn’t too far away. I either got out on my own, or Shel, and these tiny Lao guys would have to carry me. But getting out wasn’t anywhere near, because we hadn’t even fully gotten in yet. We hiked up, up, and more up, for hours. At one point, Shel stopped to take a picture just to give me a breather. Other times, I didn’t wait for an opportunity, my body just stopped. Eventually, we came to a piece that was flat, still only 10 feet worth before the next hill, but enough to stop for lunch. Our local guides cut down banana leaves to use as seats and a table cloth. BunHom pulled some boxes out of his bag full of different kinds of foods, some bananas, and enough stick rice to constipate Napoleon’s army. We ate, I entertained our guides with impressions of Ho Chi Minh, using the bokchoy as a moustache. And then we had to press on. Up, up, up. Bunhome-Only a little more up. More up, more up. Then down! Praise jesus, allah, and the animist gods the locals worship! Thankfully, the guides had also cut us some bamboo walking sticks, because for as difficult as the up was, the down was equally treacherous. Now where Shelly had taken the “up” in stride, as if she were sauntering through the mall window shopping, I found my strong suit. Although I get a bit of vertigo going down long flights of stairs, or even short ladders, I can come down a hill with the best of mountain goats. Partially due to being able to quickly see where I plant a foot, and partially I think my weight just propels me down at a rapid speed. Perhaps it’s more like the giant ball in Indiana Jones, than it is mountain goat, but either way, I felt pretty comfortable. There were times that our path was a dried up narrow stream, left from the rainy season, full of rocks. There were times that our path was a narrow hole between boulders and tree limbs. A keen knowledge of acrobatics or perhaps contortionism would have been nice here. For the most part I took it in stride. Shel had a few tumbles, but our man Flip Flops was right behind to pick her up. I proudly only fell a few times, but they were doozies. Apparently, on the really bad one I actually bounced. How appropriate, because earlier I’d been telling Shelly about the claymation Rudolph movie; “Bumbles bounce!”
We started getting tired, and making stupid moves, and stumbling more. We heard voices! A village! We’d been in the jungle for hours now, we had to be near a village! But alas, it was a group of men sawing lumber for a house. They had a seat made from large bamboo poles stretched between wooden “sawhorses”. They offered a space on it, I took it, and I took it right down. The low point in the day perhaps; making these men’s’ bench collapse, but I was too tired to care. Once on the ground, it was all I could do not to just sleep there, but locals laughing heartily at me propelled me up, that and a few hands. So we bid farewell, or Sabai Di, and continued through the jungle, even more tired for the brief rest. Bunhom always saying we were close.
Finally! Back to the wee teak forest on the edge of the paddies, and then the hour trek through the paddies, through the streams, and on, to a new village, where small childrens cries of “Falang! Falang!” were heard as we walked through. Our guide pulled up some chairs outside one of the local guide’s family house. Needless to say, I tested its stability before sitting down. The local children gathered around me, so I took their pictures and showed them to them. The town’s women gather around, but kept their distance. While they were smiling, a man stayed near the children with a scowl. He did not appreciate the town’s children being so happy about falang. You could spot his boys, the older one, about five, kept pulling his younger brother away from the kids and the falang, but you could also tell he wanted to play too. He kept smiling and laughing with the rest, but if he caught you looking at them, he’d pull his brother back. I’d pick my camera up, and point at the kids and say “You? You?” asking if they wanted their picture taken. They didn’t understand, they just started pointing at each other and me, excitedly mimicking “You?! You?!” It was beautiful. Around this time, I hear our guide tell Shelly, “Truth. I have never done this trek.” WHAT!? HAHAHAHAHAHA! All the sudden I didn’t feel so bad. Maybe I’m out of shape, but this trail had never been tested on falang. We may very well have been the first white people to walk through that part of the jungle. And I realized then, that we had not seen another westerner all day. Only locals. It was amazing. Bunhom then gathered us up for a short walk to a river, where a small canoe type boat with a motor on it was waiting to take us down river back to Nong Khiaw. A few minutes down and our guide had to clamber to the back to start bailing water. We watched the sun set behind the mountains as our boat moved through the waters, around rocks and islands. It was an amazing way to end the day. I was bleeding from my feet, I was now, only an hour after sweating and dreaming of cold beer, freezing and dreaming of hot curry. But it didn’t matter, because we were alone on the river, enjoying this all to ourselves.
I’d really love to have a glass of red on the Danube right now. But I’m perfectly happy with a beerlao and a plate of noodles on the Ou river. And I’ll do it with a great friend and an amazing feeling that I just completed one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. But I’ll have a shower first, I mean come on, I’ve been trekking in the jungle for eight hours!