Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Arriving in Nong Khiaw, I settled into my guest house (a tiny room at the edge of the ricketiest deck I've ever stepped foot on-a sagging bamboo number. Nice view of the river though) (on the east side of the river) and then headed to get dinner with the guy from Quebec who was checking into the room next to mine as I dropped my load.
A beautiful little town, Nong Khiaw. Large limestone cliffs on all sides, the wide Nam Ou ('nam' is pretty much anything water. So it's the Ou River) floating lazily past, and a long concrete bridge extending between the town on the east and west sides of the river. Seeing the river got me more than a little excited about my idea.
Have I mentioned the idea yet? Passed along from my sister who undertook the same voyage a year previous (though I intended to go further because I am better!), the idea goes like this: buy a local boat in Nong Khiaw. Paddle down river (my destination being Luang Prabang) and stay in villages along the way. Brilliant idea.
Back to dinner. While eating with M, 2 girls showed up, also hailing from Quebec (Quebecers were everywhere!!), and sat to eat with us. Politics were discussed; I simply hung my head made funny noises. For a change, the discussion was more Canada vs. Quebec than the evil incarnate that is the US of A. Seems that while some Canadians hate being lumped in with Americans, many Quebecers feel just as strongly about being lumped in with Canada. Pretty weird, eh? Take off ya hoser!
Siderant-we're all people, ya know? To rephrase some lines from "Chasing Amy". In the movie, Amy states that becoming a lesbian was in part to not limit her chances of finding her one great love. Limiting her options to only men halves her chances. Well, by trying to maintain our heritage and breeding within our own (yes, I am simplifying greatly. I haven't ranted in a long while so leave me alone. It'll let me pretend that I am thinking) aren't we doing the same? And furthermore....splunge.
That died quickly. Almost before it began, you might say. Moving on....
While discussing our feelings on tourists, traveling, stuff like that, we all came to an agreement that the less touristy the better and that the tourists we were running across in Lao were much more like-minded with us than the ones found in say, Thailand. (Although it is hard to complain about the presence of tourists, because in essence you are then complaining about yourself. Catch that 22 if you can) So of course I mentioned my boat idea. Now, this wasn't exactly a bar, but I was on my second Beerlao (big bottles, 5%) and I'd just met these girls. Seemingly devoid of a 'sane' person's common sense they asked if they could come along on the trip. My response? "I love Beerloa!! Oh, um, yeah, why not. You can paddle." (I AM the consummate gentleman)
You might say that it was my overwhelming charm and strikingly good looks that wowed these female types into wanting to spend an unknown number of days on a still unprocured boat with me. But I don't quite see it that way (though feel free to assume that was the case). I was still unshaven and filthy from the long bus ride, and I was making a pig of myself-2 big beers and 2 full meals for my dinner. Not to mention my lack of clean clothes and hairy armpits. And chasing a damn rooster down the road hell-bent on destruction may not have enhanced my peace-loving side.
A mystery, it was/is.
The next morning I woke up and ran into J on the bridge (literally. I was bopping away with my MP3, hat pulled way low [still have no sunglasses. Lost them in China running for a bus and still haven't recovered]), where he was taking pics and looking disconcerted. Seems during the night a rat had fallen into bed with he and C, and she didn't appreciate the visit. This was the case almost all over; rats were being heard, seen, and felt. I heard them in the wall at my head, but reserved my feelings of rancour for all the bloody chickens!! J told me that they were moving guesthouses, and I wished him luck and continued across to the west side of the river to the 'docks' (place of mud where boats were pulled up) to talk with people. It went well. Got offers and my confidence buoyed. I cruised passed the girls' (the Js) place to check on their seriousness. They were full in. Still. Amazing I tell you. My only guess is that they planned to either drag me behind the boat to clean/unstench me, or conduct a mutiny and use my as buffalo boat. I am still afraid to ask.
More background on my amazement. In all the discussions on the subject, I could provide no map, no detailed knowledge of the river or use of Lao boats, no idea of how far we would be going or how long it would take. All I knew was that I could find a boat, there was water, and people in Lao are nice so finding a place to stay might work.
And that according to my self-proclaimed brilliant water-god friend, "water flows downhill" so how could we get lost? Knowing how to say: "Nybon mi"/"take me to your chief" and lugging along a machete, bike pump and bike lock, further reinforced our goldenness in my mind.
Feeling luck, I decided to hold off on further shopping until the evening when more boats were off the water. To fill my day, I hiked a couple kms out to some caves that were used by the Lao people when the US military was not bombing Lao, leaving behind large craters and dead people and all that. Yes, that is sarcasm. Amazing how even those high up can close their eyes and pretend something didn't happen simply because most of their constituency can't see the evidence first hand.
Talking to members of the 'bombsquad' at the caves I learned: they find on average 2 mines a day. And I've heard that on average 2 people a day die from mines in Lao. I had no idea.
At the caves I hooked up with 4 girls from...all over, and hung out with them at a nearby village and school, snapping pics of the kids and trading traveling tales. And hearing all about 'women's problems'. Love that.
Returning to town, I took leave of my new new friends (until dinner that night) to check out boats. J was down at river's edge sunning and talking to a Lao guy (Pons). I ran down and ended up talking to the Lao cat and finding out that he had boats for sale. We chatted, then walked into his village to talk with his dad. I waited on the outskirts of the village, making faces at little kids who threw confused looks and amazement back at me, while Pons talked to daddy. A bit later he returned with a decent price. I grabbed the Quebecers and we jaunted upon the river on a test ride. My excitement almost precipitated a Tolliver-like accident, but I restrained. Ashore we struck a deal! We had a boat!
PA was arriving the next day, so one more day of waiting and we'd be on the river (PA would have one night to rest up and prepare). The large group of us had dinner and reveled in the actuality of my dream coming to fruition (I reveled, they looked at me funny).
Can you believe with no real effort I conned 3 people into joining me? And the best part is that all 3 had anxiety and worries both before and all throughout the journey. But I didn't have any such concerns. What does that mean? Maybe it is bad that it wasn't until after we reached our destination that I remembered a passage in the LP about medical care in Lao? Something to the effect of: "Don't get hurt. Medical care is almost non-existent, and the chances of getting care quickly is impossible." Ah, worrywarts.
Maybe to give you a better idea of why their worries may not have been allayed....the boat. A 34-foot long by maybe 2-foot wide wooden boat, closely resembling a coffin. Leaking (as all good Lao boats seem to do) only slightly, with 2 included oars that more closely resembled twigs than paddles for a 34-foot behemoth of a boat, it's visage was more of dogged resistance to being made into firewood than of power. A beautiful craft, in my eyes. I'll download the pics later.