Laos

Seth at firing range. Sixty bullets purchBullets purchased at local market for five dollars. Near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1995I met Seth in Luang Prabang, Laos. With three Swiss backpackers we planned a trip up the Mekong, but Seth came down with food poisoning, so nervous Peter, plump Renata, the charismatic Pascal and I made our way upriver on hired fantail boats.

Sailing six to eight hours a day, we marveled at the sight of half submerged water buffalo, pristine jungle, the occasional village. By noon we dozed to the engines dull roar.

On the third day, we stopped at the Cave of the Buddha, and walked the ground of the immense cave. For next to nothing, an old man offered to read our fortunes. Written in Lao, I had no idea what mine said.

Further on, we stopped at a village famous for its fermented wine, which the men buried in clay casks in the river bank until it fermented, and was ready to drink. As we neared shore, I was stunned by the sight of a boy wearing a T shirt with a large anatomical eye, and beneath it, the words ‘Nantucket Rectilinear.’

One late afternoon, looking for a place to spend the night, we met a bird hunter on a rocky path. His long barrelled rifle was taller than he by half.  In a pleasant voice, he told us there were no villages for miles. As we started to walk it began to rain. An Army truck approached. We tried to flag it down but it crawled past us. It grew dark, the rain fell harder; the same truck passed us again-this time it stopped.

The fortune uses a riddle and comparison of stories of Chanok and Makala: Chanok was an incarnation of Buddha. The message of the story is perseverance. Chanok swam in the ocean day after day without giving up. After his seventh day (or forty days) Makala (an angel) came down to rescue him. Chanok had faith; no matter how great the obstacles in life, he perservered. In the end, he was rescued, and received his grand merit. Translation by Ann Rithmyxay, Laotian American Society.Gratefully, we jumped aboard, and sat on wood benches either side of the canvas roofed vehicle. I sat across from a man with a loaded antique  shotgun. Near him, a smiling, grizzled man held aloft a lit hurricane lantern which cast an eerie glow upon the huddled passengers.

In the slanting rain, the truck lurched and lumbered over the steep jagged road. Finally, we arrived at an Army base, where a smiling Lao officer greeted us in fluent German.  We were tired and hungry and asked about food. After inspecting our passports, the officer pointed to a kitchen that had nothing on hand but Morning Glory soup.  The boiled vines, served with stale bread, were tasteless. When I peeked into the kitchen, I saw that the cook and his crew were transfixed by a broadcast of World Federation Wrestling, received by the giant satellite antennae anchored outside.

The next morning, with Pascal in the lead, we walked a mile to a nearby village. Along the way, we met numerous young men playing pool with broom sticks on billiard tables set on the side of the narrow dirt road.

At the village-an immaculate collection of bamboo huts and white pebbled paths, the handsome children, fearful of us, whispered farang, strangers, but gradually joined our game of catch with a bamboo ball purchased in Luang Prabang. They laughed hysterically when I tossed the ball high into the air, triumphantly jittered the Ali shuffle, then caught the plummeting ball behind my back. Around noon, as we left the village, and waved good bye, the excited children followed us, their fretting parents in hot pursuit.

On the tenth day upriver, Pascal and I decided to fly back to Vientienne; Peter and Renata would return by boat. It had been a long and arduous trip, though nothing prepared me for the flight from Laos to Hanoi, or what followed.

The local airport was a large dirt field flanked by a small wooden shack with a dirt floor and a single long wooden bench. Pascal and I were the only foreigners present. A Lao family with four children, and a wiry  old man guarding a gray box, stood outside, patiently scanning the horizon.

After two hours, hearing a distant low roar, the wiry man entered the shack and opened the box, which contained a vacuum tube radio and bulky microphone. He plugged the radio’s electric cord into a socket, waited for the tubes to warm and glow, then carefully turned a small black dial to the left and right. Instantly the air filled with the buzz and crackle of high frequency static. The man spoke into the microphone, the roar grew louder, the dot in the sky began its descent.

The Lao family, Pascal and I watched in awe as an old French or Russian biplane, with steel struts, canvas covered wings, an enormous multi-cylinder engine, and a large wood propeller, touched down at the far end of the field. The plane taxied the length of the runway and came to a roaring halt nearly in front of us. Two men, wearing khakis and leather helmets, emerged from the plane and disappeared. An hour later, the pilots returned from their break, settled into the cockpit and waved us aboard.

There were no seats inside the small cramped cabin. Pascal, a tall powerful man, crossed his legs and sat on his pack. The Lao children, sitting on their haunches, huddled near their parents, who seemed upset. Instinctively, I crouched by the cabin door, an oval wood hatch with a small  round window, secured by a thin sliding bolt. I watched as the co-pilot handed each Lao a plastic baggie. Within minutes after take off, the entire family began puking into the plastic sacks.

As the plane lofted higher, I gazed out the window; the scent of the sky, the blur of passing tree tops, the engines continuous dull roar-where did I know this from? Pop smoke! Birds inbound! Birds inbound! And we grunts, exhausted from weeks on patrol, boarded the trembling choppers, which briefly touched down, nosed forward and whisked us away.

In Vientienne, I said good bye to Pascal and caught a plane to Hanoi.  The short flight was uneventful, but as we descended, at first I saw nothing but bomb craters, as if the tropical land was the surface of the moon. Farther on, green fields were polka dot with them, the earth still scarred twenty years after the event. Arc Light, we called it, when waves of lumbering B52s dropped their cruel tonnage, and the sky filled with the thrumming sound of giant bees as the bombs plummeted to earth. Seconds later, the ground shook violently, and the next day we marched to what remained: the triple canopy jungle turned to a landscape of giant match sticks and waist high rubble. But Arc Light a town, or a city-as the American’s did to Hanoi? What could possibly survive?

After airport customs, I met an Englishman in a parking lot, hitched a ride in his  Land Rover, found a room at the Spring Hotel, bought a fifty cent map from a man on a passing bicycle, and went for a walk. Compared to Laos, the thick heat of Hanoi was unbearable. I found relief under a shade tree near an old church on a main boulevard. There, I watched and listened to the pleasing sound of ten thousand bicycle treads rolling on smooth paved roads. I savored the tinny jingle of bicycle bells, the atonal lilt of the Vietnamese language.

A cluster of men across the street. Squatting on their haunches, they wore NVA pith helmets, and faded green uniforms. At first this had no effect on me, but soon I grew anxious and increasingly irate. A church bells sudden loud clang caused me to flinch and shudder. As if in a dream, I staggered back to my hotel room, bolted the wood door shut, stood several minutes sobbing, then threw myself onto the immaculate bed and slept for hours. So ended my first day in Hanoi.

__________________

Laotian American Society