Monday, April 11, 2005

Heading down river 

The morning of our launching finally arrived. The entire crew was in town and anxious to get moving. I began the day by heading to the riverside and bailing the boat out with my newly acquired bucket. Beautiful sunny day, slight breeze, my belly all a-flutter with excitement. After buying some food (not much to be found in town. Some rice, eggs, and bread) and loading up and pushed away from shore while random other friends watched and shook their heads, wishing us luck in not sinking, capsizing, or dying. Thanks, I think.

What an amazing day. I took a seat in the bow; my duties involved scouting out rocks and trees and any such obstacles as might cause us to capsize/crack apart, paddling, and napping when necessary. Allen was in the stern. He has more canoe experience so he got the steerage job (though the damn boat was so long that I needed to move the front end while he moved the tail end). The Genvieve's took up positions in the middle of the boat where they paddled and from time to time bailed water.

Silence, except for the paddling oars, buzzing cicadas (a very eerie sound), singing Allen and the occasional "sa bai dee" ("hello" in Laotian) to people on shore or in passing boats. High hills surrounded us; some lush and green, others burnt brown. Now and then we'd hear loud booms though we never figured out what they were. Cows and water buffalo lined the banks and they'd turn their heads and stare blankly (as any good bovine does) at our greetings to them. We started later in the day than desired (just in time to paddle during the hottest time of day), 11amish! No realy problem since we could reach out and soak outselves. Allen dove off the back of the boat after a couple hours and almost cracked the poor girl in half trying to clamber back in.

We stopped for lunch after a couple hours and ate in the shade, enjoying the quiet while watching a couple of Laotian men fishing. Their version of fishing entailed dropping out a net, then whacking the water with 10-foot poles to scare the fish into their nets. This explained some of the booming we had been hearing, as the poles made a resounding WHOMP on the water. The booms reverberating thru the hills were never explained...

My 'seat' was a 2-inch slat of wood that was nailed in at an angle that left me struggling to not fall back into the boat. As a result, I ended the trip with a severely bruised bum as well as mangled toes (sitting cross-legged with my feet crushing into the wood). No matter, it was worth it.
The boat did indeed leak. Nothing substantial (yet), but enough to warrent a good bailing every now and then
Seeing 4 white people paddling an oversized boat down the river with a large pile of luggage in the middle was an amusing break in the day for every Laotian we passed. Can't imagine why they so thoroughly enjoyed it?
The people in Laos are very very nice. As we trundled by villages, little kids, adults, shy teens, and even their dogs would run out to the river banks to yell "sa bai dee" and wave to us. Once or twice a couple kids began swimming out to us (they were already clowning in the river. And they scared us. Not that their size was intimidating, but because we were afraid the boat would collapse if they grabbed on to the sides). All fun and games.

There were not too many rapids on this first day, and the ones encountered were handled relatively painlessly. A shout to people on shore on in nearby boats, pantomiming our request for direction, gave us the 411 on how to approach and shoot the rapids. Very helpful advice as it kept us afloat.

Ok, to be honest, there was one small incident. Late in the day (which means poor lighting. Without fancy polarized sunglasses, you can't see thru the water. Hence unseen rocks tend to sneak up. At least that is my excuse) we came up on some whitewater ahead of a large bend in the river. A small motorboat ahead of us showed us the way. Now for those of you who have spent any time in watercraft, you might know that navigating obstacles in a 10-foot motorboat is much easier than in a 34-foot rectangle of a boat propelled by matchsticks. So no, we were not able to follow the motorboat's path which resulted in us getting high centered on a rock. I saw it too late and grimaced as the rock hit the bottom of the boat, making the old wood shudder. Turning sideways and making as if to tip (though thankfully it didn't) we came to a stop, hung up on a large boulder. No one appreciated my giggling; not until I jumped into the river to get us moving again did the moans and shrieks end. Allen jumped in to help me out; we backed the boat up and pointed it in the correct direction then jumped back in and manned the oars before going off course again. It was fun (to me), and we came out with only a minor increase in leakage.

As the sun sank behind the hills, our thoughts turned to finding a place to sleep for the night. A couple small villages passed us by and we decided that a larger village was a better idea, as maybe then we'd be less of a nuisance/drain on the locals. Finally, 4 hours after setting out, one came into view. The banks of the river were loaded with screaming/jumping/running children and bathing women (to bath in Laos, they hit the river and wash there. No nakedness, they always have a sarong [women][wrong name for the cloth, I know] or some kind of covering). A perfect place to alight. As our boat sauntered up to the bank and we unbent ourselves to get out 2 women came up and I asked them: "Nybon mi," ("Where is the chief?")? I don't know how the heirarchy worked there, but one woman took me and Allen and the other took the girls; the children unloaded all of our stuff from the boat and brought it to meet us at our homes for the night. No 'chief' ever made an appearance. Unless one of the women was she? No idea. Unless they could have filled me in using only the numbers (that was all the Lao I'd learned up to that point) I would not (did not?) have understood.

This was a very nice village. Nice homes (all up on stilts of course), clean, dressed kids. The home Allen and I were placed in had a little common area by the door, a narrow kitchen, and back room that we never saw. To start off the festivities, I showed them the pic I had of my family, and using my phrase book I explained who everyone was. For some reason they looked from the short haired, goateed, nicely dressed picture of me to the grungy, long-haired (though clean shaven!), stanky real life me and all giggled. Odd. They loved seeing the picture, however. Gave them a huge kick. With my Lao phrase book and the help of one of the local kids (9 yrs old. Reads Lao, but has no english) we ran thru a lot of language lessons (he'd tell me how to say a word in Laotian and I'd reciprocate with the english version) and had a great time. Surrounded by little kids, bigger kids, adults, everyone full of smiles and very very warm. After play time we went inside and had some tea with the family-and a dozen other kids. I pulled out the digital camera and we took some pics. Allen pulled out his cd player which they adored. Everyone took a turn listening; I think the Beastie Boys was their fave-especially when Allen belted out a couple songs.

Then dinner arrived. I have no idea what it was (except for the sticky rice. That I figured out) but it was the best food I ate in Laos. Allen and I ate while the family (and half the town) looked on.

After dinner we headed outside to find a toilet, but ran into the girls first. They were embarking on the same mission and had had no luck thus far. Using the phrase books, we pointed to and said "toilet" in Laotian, and the kid who'd been helping us earlier repeated it and obviously understood the word. Yet when we looked confused and pointed around he laughed. And the "Pee Dance" made the gathering crowd laugh even harder. In the end, the girls wandered off into a bush while us MEN distracted the crowd. Then A and I took turns distracting the crowd for each other. We assumed that the river is the toilet for the town? That was our guess since we never saw one. So it goes.

Toilet duties taken care of, we 4 stood and talked amid a large crowd whose interest in us seemed to be waning. This was our sign to head inside and by 7:30pm we'd been ushered behind a mosquito net and into 'bed'. Two of the kids got in with us and pretended to sleep (I felt like they were keeping an eye on us for some reason). The one kid, who'd been my reading advisor throughout the night was next to me and we worked on teaching him how to count from 6 to 10 in english (he had 1-5 mastered; we're not that cruel). Fun times. Then we laid there and listened/watched the family run thru what appeared to be school lessons and various learning activites with the little kids by candlelight. Reading stories, reading practice, activities, pointing, giggling, a tangible familial closeness and love. It was amazing to be able to watch as though a fly on the wall. I loved it. Blissfully happy would accurately describe my feelings at that time.

Eventually I fell into a sound sleep and I am not sure I woke up very much during the night (A rarity for me).

One hell of a first day on the water.

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Name: Corey
Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I'm on a journey with no destination. The path is constantly changing direction but there are always adventures to be had. "Never" and "always" have left my lexicon.

WWW http:/www.jimspeak.blogspot.com