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.

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 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 who told us there were no villages for miles. As we started to walk it began to rain. An Army truck sped when we tried to flag it down. It grew dark,the rain fell harder;the same truck passed us again by but 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.Gleefully,we jumped aboard and rode to an Army base, where a Lao officer greeted us in fluent German. After inspecting our passports,he pointed to a kitchen that had nothing to eat but Morning Glory soup. We were famished but the boiled vines were barely edible and were served an hour late. When I peeked in the kitchen I saw the cook and his crew watching World Federation Wrestling via satellite TV.

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

At the village,an immaculate collection of bamboo huts and white pebbled paths,the handsome children,over-coming their fear of strangers, ‘farang’ they whispered,joined our game of catch. They laughed hysterically when Pascal tossed the ball high in the air,triumphantly jittered the Ali shuffle,then caught the ball behind his 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,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 dry dirt floor and a single wooden bench. Pascal and I were the only foreigners present. A Lao family with four children,and a wiry 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 its electric cord into a socket,waited for the tubes to warm up,then slowly turned a small black dial to the left and right. Instantly the air filled with the eerie buzz and crackle of high frequency static. Then the man spoke into the microphone and the roar grew louder and the dot in the sky began to descend.

The Lao family,Pascal and I watched in awe as an old French biplane,replete with steel struts and canvas wings,an enormous multi-cylinder engine,a large wood propeller,touched down at the far end of the field,taxied the length of the runway,and came to a roaring halt nearly in front of us. 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,they 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! Lucky us,after weeks on patrol,gleefully boarding the trembling choppers that will dip and rise and whisk us away. Lucky us,shot at,but never once shot down. Lucky,lucky us.

In Vientienne,I said good bye to Pascal and caught a plane to Hanoi . The short flight was uneventful,but as we descended I saw nothing but bomb craters. They littered the landscape. The 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 humming sound of giant bees. Seconds later the ground shook beneath us,and the next day we marched to what remained: the triple canopy turned to a landscape of match sticks and splintered rubble. But Arc Light a town,an inhabited city? What could possibly survive?

After customs,I met an Englishman and hitched a ride in his  Land Rover,found a room at the Spring Hotel,bought a fifty cent map from a man on a bicycle,then 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 as the air hummed with the pleasing sound of bicycle treads rolling on smooth paved roads,the tinny jingle of bicycle bells,the atonal lilt of the Vietnamese language.

Across the street,a cluster of men milling about wore NVA pith helmets or 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 madly staggered back to my room,bolted the wood door shut,stood several minutes sobbing,then threw myself onto the immaculate bed and slept for hours.

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Laotian American Society