Posts Tagged ‘benevolence’

Northern Laos is a great place to dry out.

For starters, everything closes by about 10:30pm. Many smaller towns are isolated enough to only have electricity for a few hours each night, or maybe not at all, and warm beer is not an acceptable beverage when it’s 95 degrees out. To cinch it, most people come up here to do trekking, 1 to 3 day hikes, in which you stay in villages overnight… not the most conducive surroundings to drinking, although there is a lot of rice whiskey around, and the locals love feeding it to me, which of course I never refuse. You wouldn’t insult a host, would you?

After spending about a week meandering about and trekking around Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, and Luang Namtha, I met a really nice Canadian bloke names Ara who regaled me with tale of something called The Gibbon Experience. He was raving about it, talking about monkeys and tree houses and zip-lines and such. Basically, it’s a 3-day 2-night stay in a nature reserve in Bokeo province where they’ve built tree houses you stay in, only accessible via zip-line, that rest between 20 and 60 meters off the ground. The whole place takes you along paths built along several ridges, where zip-lines connect across valleys and from land to platforms to tree houses. I did some zip-line stuff in Costa Rica with some friends and it was tons of fun but kind of rushed along, pushing from platform to platform in a large group. At $250, this is probably the most expensive way you could possibly spend three days here (that amount is a very comfortable week or more in most places, and could buy you a six-day trek with home stays in Muang Sing) but Ara made a hell of a pitch — it was my birthday after all, and after his wide-eyed description of the place, I figured I’d splurge, try something new, or at least different — three straight days of zip-lines over the jungle sounded pretty unique…

dear diary: I seem to be ageing

A quick rant: 25 is a silly age. It’s silly because it seems somehow much older than 24 to a 24-year-old, like there’s this line in the sand, and after you cross that line, like bam, there’s half your mid-twenties, gone… now your age can be measured in quarter-centuries. It’s really nihilistic and dramatic in a way that makes you laugh. Oddly enough, two of the other people who Ara successfully pitched the tour to had their birthdays just before mine, that I got to share with them. Beth turned 26 on a bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Namtha that I was on, a pretty hellish bus ride even by Laotian standards (she thought it was funny that I was using the collapsed, mangled seats in front of me along with a sack of rice as an ottoman). I bought her a beer afterwards but we think a Frenchman stole it. Matt turned 23 the day before we went into the jungle, in Huy Xai. I won’t bore you all with the semantic ballyhoo in my head about how insignificant I feel about myself at this particular age… the more I know, the more I know how absolutely little I know, and while I’m not sure if that’s the age talking, I’ve honestly never been more clueless about my life or my future than I am right now, at this moment, sitting on this bus to Kunming in Yunnan, that smells so completely awful, of stale food, feet and vomit, that I’m actually thankful when the Chinese guys lying on both sides of me chain-smoke… you should see my smile right now. The Chinese guys must be wondering what the hell I’m writing to make me grin so much. I offered one of them an orange earlier. He refused, with what might be construed as a smile, then hacked up something deep from his gullet and spit on the floor of the bus between us. But I’m wandering here — more on that sort of thing later…

buy the ticket, take the ride

And so, another posse formed. Three random Brits, a French Canadian, an Aussie and myself went hiking into the forest on April sixth in search of Tree House #1. In the true spirit of travel (and, I should like to think, life), six strangers with seemingly nothing in common will all instantly become friends if simply given the opportunity. We went out with our guide, Nuon, who showed us the basics of zipping (the equipment here was a bit nicer than the stuff I’ve used before but with some interesting details) and then left us to ourselves. Our tree house was inhabited by a cat (we named it Bud) so as to kill mice and such, but Bud wasn’t interested in hunting the odd bugs that kept falling from the top of the tree house onto the lower level, near one of the beds. We thought they were maggots, as this logic played into the scenario of “perhaps there’s a dead bird up in the thatched roof” which seemed reasonable (cat + thatch roof = dead birds = maggots?). Matt and I swapped beds for the “bug bed” based initially on its size, not that it actually fit us any better, and we sealed off the mat with a mosquito-net like enclosure hanging from a branch. Seemed like a good fit. The very last thing to go through my head that night before drifting into a sweaty, buggy, noisy sleep was “Christ, please don’t let me wake up with maggots in my bed…”

…So at dawn, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I woke up 125 feet up in a tree, in the middle of the jungle in NW Laos, on a mat so worn down that it wouldn’t be used in a barrio in a bad neighborhood in East LA, with some toxic caterpillars sharing my pillow (although at the time I thought they were maggots or some such thing).

Still, for all the apprehension I felt about the money, and the caterpillars, and all the other less-than-awesome aspects of the trip, it was completely incredible and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. You’ll go out around six in the morning (and by “go out” I mean “strap on a harness and jump onto a zip-line that dangles above the ‘living room'”), looking for Gibbon monkeys who sing this amazing, almost synthetic sounding song, and you’ll just run as soon as you start hearing them, ’cause they only sing for eight or ten minutes before disappearing. We got lucky and saw them both mornings — they’re somewhat afraid of the ziplines (they vibrate the trees alot, not to mention the natural inclination to holler out like the Cisco Kid while you’re riding one) and pretty much hold to the canopy, so if you don’t really haul, you’ll miss them. Then in the afternoon, you’ll just go out, trekking and zipping, trekking and zipping… I’m sure it sounds like this would get old, but it just doesn’t. I swear. You’ll do it all day and then pop back to the tree house for lunch, and look around at everyone, and say “Wanna go back out?” and as soon as you hop back on the line it’s fuckin’ brand-new again. It’s really very independent in that you don’t need the guide to go zipping (which explains the huge release form you sign) and it’s just fantastic… and to top it all off, I never even got bitten by the caterpillars! Which is a very good thing, apparently, as one of the volunteers explained a bite can make your thumb swell to the size of the fist (they shrugged when I asked for the species’ name — can I get an entomologist, please?)

That night, half of the native guides and Drew, a volunteer from Green Bay, zipped into our tree house with our guide, Nuon, balancing a tray with my birthday surprise: a pumpkin, filled with ovaltine and condensed milk, surrounded by sliced pan-fried potato. Pretty awesome cake considering the surroundings and what’s available (which is, ummmm, pumpkins, ovaltine powder, condensed milk…). He had carved me a few flutes out of young bamboo, and we sat around and passed the Jim Beam I’d lugged up from the base village (they discourage drinking for obvious reasons), because, let’s be honest here, even the bleakest birthday I can possibly imagine still has whiskey and friends in it. It was great… we made a sort of rice-pudding thing out of the pumpkin filling and the rice leftover from dinner that was quite delicious and filling, and after a day of trekking and zipping, everyone crashed around 9:30 (in order to wake the next morning by 5:30 to catch the Gibbons) which makes quite a lot of firsts for this particular birthday…

then…

coming back to Huy Xai the next afternoon, after another morning of zip-binging and mild exploring, we re-discovered cold beer and grilled meat, among other things — it was like flying into New Orleans from Saudi Arabia . After a shower, I climbed up the hill to Wat Huy Xai to watch the sunset. Striking. A monk with some interesting tattoos on his shoulder sat down and started chatting. Turns out we had a lot in common, if you overlook the whole “I’ve-been-a-monk-for-five-years” part. I told him it was my birthday and he said “I have a gift for you!” then ran off for a few minutes. He walked back up to the bench with this huge spliff in his hand….

“Woah man… aren’t monks… umm… not supposed to smoke?
“No, just alcohol. My friends and I smoke everyday.”
Sounds like some monks I know back home!

“Uhhh… okay. Thanks!”

I blazed with a five-year Theravada monk on the top of Wat Huy Xai watching the sun go down, chatting about life and weed and tattoos and family and fishing and China. On my way down the hill, about half-way down the steps, three Laotian guys were sitting around a small table with their shirts off, passing the glass… they waved me over. I sat. They had a basket full of small snakes, just burned to a crisp, that they were pulling the spines out of, dashing in dried red pepper, and popping in their mouths. They were rather disgusting but with enough red pepper you couldn’t quite taste the flesh or the carbon surrounding it… we passed the glass around a few times and I thanked them. It was only 7pm or so but the gifts had been flooding into my system… at the bottom of the hill, I ran into some tree house friends patronizing this fantastic grilled-meat stand, where the barbecued chicken inexplicably tastes just like home. We had a few. I told them about the monk and the guys on the hill. Eventually the whole tree house was there again, plus some new friends, a nice girl from Chicago whose brain I thoroughly picked about Myanmar and another Canadian who was in a different tree house. I couldn’t help but say it: “Damn! Beer tastes good today…”

In “The Book”, April Seventh is “The Day of Enthusiastic Belief”, which may or may not explain the next part of this story…

I wound up drinking much too late and much too much, considering I hadn’t been drinking anything recently… we drained the rest of the Beam, then some Thai guys bought a bunch of Lao whiskey and we started drinking that, punctuated by cold beer (did I mention it was cold? Good Lord the beer tasted good that day!). It got late, real late for a small border town in Laos, and we swaggered and stumbled back to our guesthouses shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing and telling stories…

It was only when I was back in the guesthouse that I realized I didn’t have my sidebag with me. This was a catastrophic mistake — my sidebag has… well, basically everything important in it. Now, I bet you’re asking yourself, “Why in the hell would you take the bag with everything important in it with you to the damn bar?”

Well, I needed something to carry the whiskey in…

Anyway, I make the mad dash, barefoot, back to the bar — no staggering to speak of; I’m suddenly as sober as a Turk and something greater seems to have sucked all the alcohol out of my blood, just like the alcohol had sucked all the brain cells out of my head. The bar is locked up. I knock, quietly, several times, at various doors. An older, pot-bellied man with limited English understands my pantomimes very quickly and offers to tuk tuk me to the house of the bar owners. Lots of dogs in this neighborhood, and they seem averse to random barefoot westerners meandering about at odd hours. We fail to rouse the owners. He takes me back to the bar and a feeling of hopelessness washes over me… what a stupid mistake! Why the hell would I bring the absolute most crucial items with me to the damn bar!?! I deserve this, this loss…

He pantomimes a gesture that says “Be sitting here, at that table, at 8am tomorrow morning, and we’ll find your bag. Everything will be okay.” I offer him the last of the Kip in my pocket but he refuses. Obviously, I didn’t sleep very well that night… I woke up at about 5:30 and sat there planning out the worst-case-scenario. It was looking pretty bleak… without that bag, I am utterly and completely screwed.

At 7:30 I walk up to the bar, and there are three older Laotian women and a young boy, sitting drinking tea… and there it is, my bag, in the middle of the table. I got on my knees and kissed the ground — I love this country. I walk up almost in tears, and it’s clear they can see how important this bag is to me… They invite me to look in it and make sure everything is there, to which I almost flat-out refuse but eventually decide is, in fact, a good idea. Passport is there, though not where I left it. Money clip, with all the cards present but re-arranged in a different order, and about $90 USD missing. An amount of Kip that I am unsure about. My headlamp is gone but my camera, iPod and other random tidbits are intact. Someone has gone through this thing pretty hard. I sort of gesture “there’s some stuff missing” to them, and they kind of scoff, then run off and fetch a man from across the street. He speaks very good English and introduces himself as to be a translator/mediator for us. I explain that I don’t want to cause any trouble and am extremely grateful for just having the bag (and the most crucial contents) back, but that $90 is a lot of money. At the mention of $90, he sort of raises both eyebrows… “that’s about a months wages”. “Yeah, I know.” Suddenly other random facts start running through my head: $90 is about what I’d take home from an eight or ten-hour shift wrenching bikes. $90 is the exact amount of the 2 night stay in that swanky guesthouse that Nan comped me back in LPB. $90 is, back home, perhaps a night on the town with some friends, or a dinner with drinks for two at Murimoto or Harvest, or a weeks worth of groceries… $90 can be a life changing amount of money here. The owner of the bar walks up and explains to the mediator that he did, in fact, go through the bag and the cards, trying to figure out who’s bag it was, but then left it at the bar overnight and gave it to the family behind the bar (the three older women) that morning as he doesn’t open the bar until 5pm. So by this point, the bag has passed though the hand of at least four or five people. Eventually it’s insisted and translated that no one present took the money. The mediator explains:

“This happens sometimes. Usually, there’s no theft here — they say you were drunk last night and maybe you spent the money, maybe you put it somewhere else, something like that. Since no one agrees, the only thing left to do is call the police.”
“Well, I certainly was drunk last night… but there is no possible way to spend ninety US dollars in a bar here in one night. I hate cops. I don’t want to cause trouble for these people and I’ll probably never see the money again anyway. What do you think?”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, I hate cops too. They probably take three or four hours, write down everything from everyone. Maybe nothing happens, maybe someone is lying. It can help, maybe… it’s all that’s left to do, and I have to go to work.”

In my head, it all sort of clicked: the booze, the karma, the luck of getting any of it back, the little boy hugging his mother on the table in front of me after I gave them 50,000 kip when they handing me my bag (this was before the discovery of the missing stuff), the straight-forwardness of the very nice English-speaking guy who helped mediate this whole thing (“I hate cops too”: pretty epic), the fact that in spite of the surrounding nations and the constant trampling of tourists, Laos is still one of the poorest and most remote countries on earth (the GDP per capita is just $2,100, although Lao currently has the 14th highest growth rate in the world), the fact that the US spent $2.2 million per day for 8 years bombing the hell out of the place but only contributes $2 million per year to the removal of UXO, the full removal of which (at the current rate) may be possible by around 2110 or so…

Well then it’s settled. I really do hope that family has my $90 and can make use of it; I’d have paid much more to simply get my passport and cards back. I am, put simply, rather stupid, and the pure joy and fun of the evening brought out some lackadaisical comfort zone in me that made me lose the one bag full of shit that I absolutely positively must not lose. Sometimes I really suck at this whole traveling thing. My own negative, self depreciating thoughts drifted back to Orwell’s supposed self-written eulogy for John Flory, the main character in Burmese Days:

Goodness knows where they will bury me – in their own grave yard I suppose, two feet deep in a painted coffin. There will be no mourners, and no rejoicers either, which seems sadder still, for the Burmese celebration of a funeral with music & gambling [seems] nicer than our beastly mummeries. But if there were anyone here whose hand could form the letters, I would [like] him to carve this on the bark of some great peepul tree above my head:

Here lies the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards & gin
Were the four things that did him in.

He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.

O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.

Now, I’d like to think that I don’t work (or live) for the essence of money, and I certainly don’t sleep with women I find trite or stupid, and I don’t gamble, and gin is generally the last thing I’d possibly order… but I felt just like John Flory that morning. I ain’t Nixon but I sure ain’t Robin Hood either; I’m a rather simple 25-year-old guy and I’ll be the first to admit that I make a hell of a lot of mistakes, and if it weren’t for the good will of others — even if that good will is used with some amount of grey, some fuzzy logic — I’d be completely under a sea of shit right now… so I thank my thieves, those I drank tea and broke bread with. Count yer blessings, kids… keep it in perspective.

coming soon — Return of the White Devil to the Glorious Motherland of Red China…

cheers, and thanks to everyone for the birthday blessings…