|Our Really Big Adventure|
| Cut off from the
rest of Laos by limestone mountains, impenetrable forest and the Nam Ou
River, Muang Ngoi has the reputation of a traditional village where travellers
can hang out and let the few stresses that Laos affords drain away. On the
basis of several positive reports we were swayed from our original, albeit
loose, itinerary and were going to backtrack north by truck and boat up
to the village. Information was sketchy and downright contradictory, with
every time between 8am and 10.30am being quoted for the departure of our
truck. We had some experience of Laos and knew transportation timetables
to be somewhat of a fantasy. Despite the backdrop of a communist country
the public transportation runs according to the fundamental principle of
capitalism: supply and demand. As soon as a truck is full it leaves. We
turned up at the bus station at 10.30, just in time to catch the 9am truck.
The bus station was like all other bus stations wed seen in Laos: a large square of red dirt with a few shacks selling food but not a bus in sight. Our transportation was a flatbed truck that was mercifully fitted with two benches and a roof; ours was suited, according to Lao regulations, for the transport of 25 people. We clambered in over live chickens, secured with twine, and piles of cargo including hundreds of baguettes, to be greeted by an absurd spectacle.
It was like something out of South African apartheid. The truck was voluntarily divided in two - between Lao and tourist. All the white people sat together in the back of the truck, taking twice as much space as required and fiercely guarded what they had claimed. All the locals sat in the front, two in the space that one westerner filled, eying up the falang that invaded their truck. Tremendously aware of our colour, we boarded and purposefully sat straddling the dividing line. At our feet lay an old woman, obviously sick, wrapped in blankets and looking weak. We hoped the trip wouldnt be as awkward as we felt.
It wasnt until the truck was full to well over capacity that I noticed that the old woman on the corrugated floor beneath me wasnt sick. As she moved uncomfortably and rearranged her blankets, she revealed the pudgy face of a baby, still with the bloody stump of an umbilical cord. I was shocked with the sharp contrast between the perfection of new life and the weathered mother barely able to endure that which must be endured. She looked well over fifty, her face gaunt and lined, her breasts slack, feeding a baby with unseeing eyes only in this world mere days. As I looked around the bus I could see that I wasnt the only one conflicted by emotions, however only the Westerners looked aghast. The Lao, presumably, thought it part of everyday life.
As we bumpily sped our way through the lush rainforest and slashed and burnt rice paddies I noticed that the father sat opposite me. He too looked old, but not like the mother, and had the face not of Lao origin but of one of the more disadvantaged minority groups. He looked after their other child, a girl wearing only a top, cradling her as she oscillated between peaceful sleep and the struggles of a confined and irritated two-year old. I wondered what set of circumstances could have led to them having a family so late in life. In spite of the inevitable hope that new life inspires, I couldnt help but think of how unfair life is. What chances would this baby have? What portion of its potential could be realised? Where would we be, growing up in one of the worlds poorest countries with minority parents who would only live long enough to see us enter primary school?
Four hours later we were as far as the truck could take us. The rest of the trip would have to be done by boat, past villages that knew little of the modern world. We pushed off from the riverbank just as the skies were darkening, ominous of a monsoon squall. Beside us sat a young Lao woman. Visibly shy, she sat away from us, yet excited like she was dying to tell someone something, like a student who had just aced her exams. We were intrigued. She had the flawless skin that only Asian people can have and was clearly in her Sunday best, dressed in a gold and silver brocaded skirt and clutching an amazingly ornate handbag.
The skies opened and the monsoon was upon us. We all huddled together under what little protection the boat offered. Our physical presence overshadowed her shyness and with a beaming smile she proudly showed us the CDs she was treasuring. We smiled and made approving sounds as she mimed dancing, despite thinking that perhaps Techno Friends 14 might not be to her liking. Her village soon appeared and she shouted excitedly to her friend on the bank, waving the CDs. As she stepped delicately out of the boat, she grabbed the empty chicken basket that lay by her feet - she had taken her chickens to the local market and exchanged them for CDs. Obviously the occasion warranted her smartest outfit.
Still pondering her life we arrived in Muang
Ngoi. This is a traditional village for local people but there could be
no disguising that if you wanted to make money you got into the guesthouse
business. Muang Ngoi doesnt offer the visitor much - in fact there
is nothing to do but chill and soak up the atmosphere, or maybe go fishing
and learn how to cast circular nets for lunch. I suppose that is why so
many visitors go there. The only thing that offsets the tranquillity is
the occasional roar of controlled explosions; the area is still heavily
covered in UXOs (unexploded ordinance). Bomb casings are a common sight
with one bar using 1000-pound sheaths as its supports. Some 60 people,
half of them children, die in Laos each year from the remnants of a war
most people have forgotten.