Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Warren Allen Ashby
Page 3 of 3
Eight O'clock: Savannakhet [Play time.]
The 8 hour bus from Paxse back up to Savannakhet was one of the old rickety affairs with open windows and the occasional curtain tied up that could be untied to block the sun when it bore down into you on your side, though this time the radio was softer. The seats are too close together for farangs and so your knees are always knuckled in under the seat in front of you if anyone ever sits next to you, and there is always someone next to you. However what is really unique abut the ride is that the road is dirt, or more accurately: dust, a dust often so unpleasantly thick that when a truck passes coming from the other direction the passengers near the back (where I was) can't see those near the front (where you pray the driver still is). In fact, when we arrived onto the hard surface road 2 kilometers out of Savannakhet everyone stood up and brushed themselves off, making yet another thick creamy cloud inside. But my 8 hours on this "I told you so" road ("told you so" because I had come down this exact road, albeit in the dark) was otherwise uneventful. We made the same kind of random stops to suck passengers in or disgorge them; to let the weaker bladders, mostly men, step off into the wayside bushes to relieve themselves; and to avoid the ubiquitous potholes.
At the bus station I got another tuk-tuk to the hotel I had selected from the Lonely Planet guide, which at 1,000 kip I guess I way overpaid judging by the comments, congratulations and laughter of the other drivers, but hey I told myself 60 cents for 3 km is 60 cents. Besides what was left of my dusty conscience simply decided that it just couldn't handle the world's currency problems after a ride like that.
I showered and then I showered and then I showered one more time and then I went out to look at the town and find the Mekong, and did both. They've actually done a nice job along the Mekong, opening up a long stretch of the bank as a public space. And the river is quite wide here, as wide as the Hudson as it runs past NYC. On the other side in Thailand there are skyscrapers with large neon lights on them, and on this side, small dingy shops with single neon bulbs and the ever present TV running inside, though the color and B&W reception seems worse here. I've seen a few farangs, but not many, and mostly women with nose rings. (That's an honest description and not a judgment).
I ate at a restaurant that I later found in the book. I had a Mekong fish and a bowl of steamed rice. Neither were particularly good, but I had taken a corner table by the wall so that I could look out the window, at a long slant, onto the Mekong, and I ate alone since there was no one else eating there but me, unless, of course, you could count the ants. My table was a Disney World for ants, and there were literally hundreds of them who joined me for my meal. I'd brush them aside onto the floor but that scattering only allowed them to spread the word. I felt like it was a kind of refugee attack on a UN storehouse. But hey, company is company.
Still Savannakhet seemed to me to be a pleasant place, and in spite of the run down industrial feeling, it seemed even more openly friendly than usual. A lot of the people, kids as well as adults, said "hello" in Lao, and returned my "hello" in return with a fetching and sometimes bewitching smile.
The next day I decided to slow down and wander aimlessly a bit in place rather than aimlessly from point to point as I had been doing. So I spent a relaxed day finding and sending postcards, buying a phone card for $10 so that I could phone some friends at home and give them the Guest House number to call me back on, and just trying to get a feel for the town. In the late afternoon I went down to one of the outdoor beer tables to drink a beer and watch the sun set over the Mekong. These tables are in groups of 3-5 with a couple of kids' plastic chairs at each and are always managed by women who sell a little food and a good deal of beer and some handmade snacks. Their whole business can be shut down shortly after dusk and carted away.
I watched some children fly kites over the river and then after dark I walked up to the outdoor phone to call my mother and use up the last of the phone card, in what turned out to be a wonderful comedy of errors. On the digital readout on the phone you can watch your units fly by in large chunks descending like an express elevator towards zero. I had already figured out that America was exactly 12 hours behind me and so 6 p.m. for me was 6 a.m. on the same day for my friends back at home who were fated still to live through a day whose time had already passed for me. My mother answered and recognized my voice but she wanted to put her hearing aid in so that we could talk and I was screaming "wait wait" because the elevator was rapidly approaching the ground floor and when she got back on all I had time to say was: "I'm in Laos; I'm fine; and the time on my card is up." And it was, even before I could say "bye."
So I listened to her laugh as the line went blank and then I wandered around looking for a restaurant. The one I had selected for myself earlier was full of locals, not an empty table anywhere, but at least that let me know that my intuitive taste was improving, and so I headed back down to the Mekong and walked out of town until I found a nice restaurant with a view of the Thai neon lights blinking on the far shore and had a relaxing meal to end a relaxing day. Back at the Guest House they had filled up the large parking lot with tables and 300 chairs and a platform stage for a local band in order to celebrate a couple's engagement party and when I arrived at 8 p.m. they were just concluding. I could watch everything from my upstairs screened in veranda and so I watched the band play and the couples dance at the end of their evening. The Lao themselves dance slowly, in couples, and often in a kind of square dance line, using their hands for movement rather than their feet or the lower half of their bodies and there is not, by our standards, a lot of outward energy and very little touching. But there is a grace and a beauty to it, and you could tell that they enjoy it.
Earlier, shortly after dusk, just after I had phoned my mother, two young boys had cycled by me, and the boy on the back of the bike had shouted out "what iS yoUR NAME?" And I was so shocked to hear his English that I didn't answer until, weaving and pedaling out into the dark he repeated his question, and I shouted out in reply: "ALLEN." And out of the dark I heard back, almost in an echoing voice, "AL-Len," "Al-len," "allen." As if somehow the dark here knew my name.
Nine O'clock: Sepone [Killing time.]
I encountered death five times during my brief time in Laos. The first was on the first of my two slow boats down the Mekong. We had put into a small village to let someone off and while we were there one of the crew purchased a chicken and as he carried it by me where I was flopped on the top deck, he stopped and let me look at it, face to face, clucking hen scratch to human voice. Then thirty minutes later when I was taking a walk to the back of the boat, there was the chicken again, outside on the upper deck next to the kitchen space below with his neck slit, and a slowly coagulating pool of blood in a dish, and the long knife resting on the cutting board next to his head. A still life on the water.
The second time was in Champasak. Late on my first afternoon there I had walked across the street to the banks of the Mekong to watch the sun set. The river itself meandered along fifty feet below me. I sat on an old uprooted tree and watched as a young man on a motorcycle pulled up to the house immediately to my left. He too was carrying a live chicken with its feet tied and he went into the kitchen in the back and then came out again, and while I watched the silent peacefulness of the boats on the river making their way home in the twilight, I could hear the axe fall with a single dull thud, and that sound rippled through me like a chill. "Dinner time."
Two nights later after Yoi's gifts and still in Champasak, I took a solitary walk to the temple, and on the way back at the end where a dirt side street met the red dirt road, there were a group of six or seven people gathered under a single bulb hanging from a wire in a tree, and when I got closer I could see that it was the butcher at work carving up a large water buffalo. The tarp the buffalo was on was covered in pools of blood and there were body parts everywhere.
My fourth and fifth encounters occurred in Sepone, at the end of my stay in Laos, and in fact my fifth experience was one of my final sights in Laos. Sepone is the small mountain village in Laos close to the Vietnamese border. It attracts few tourists since the road is poor, the single accommodation is even poorer, and it's a small border crossing. Right next to my hotel in Savannakhet there was a tour guide's office and when I went in to get some information about getting to Sepone he offered me a ride, for a price, since he had to travel out to the border to pick up some French tourists who were crossing over from Vietnam, but he was leaving too late in the day for me.
Still when he arrived in the evening, after I had been in Sepone for most of the day, I tried to hitch a ride in his van the 30 kilometers to the border the next morning, and once again for a price, he said it would be fine. That night I noticed that both the driver and the guide slept in the van when they realized that it was 3000 for a bed in the Guest House, but the next morning he was ready to go at 6 as he promised. However before we left he wanted a coffee in the market and so I went with him and we drank one together, and then as we were getting ready to leave there was a man at the edge of the market who had just sold what looked to me like a live racoon to another man. Its legs were tied and there was a rope around its head and yet it was still hissing and struggling for its life, and so before the man handed the racoon over he took a stick and beat it about the back of the head four or five times until it was semi conscious and quit struggling, and then he beat it again just to make sure. It was really painful for me to watch this animal struggle for its life, but the others standing around (including many women and children) seemed to find it natural. Still, it reminded me not only of our different sensibilities about death and violence, but it also forced me to remember that the Lao (like the Vietnamese) insist on killing every wild animal. You can see them constantly shooting the birds and squirrels with guns, or in the case of young boys with slingshots, and for the most part they are also often deliberately cruel to the dogs, kicking and throwing stones at them. But this death was a difficult one to watch, and it seemed less natural and more painful than the first three, though I guess if your time is up, it's up.
Still, I am a little ahead of myself as I head toward my fourth encounter with death, and so let me back up and get to Sepone first.
I had gotten up at 4 in Savannakhet in order to get to the bus station by 4:40 in order to be on the 5 a.m. bus that actually left at 5:20 and arrived in Sepone at 10:30. In some ways Sepone was the strangest town I was in or even passed through in Laos. It's in the mountains and except for the hard surface road passing through, it's just a series of dirt streets leading off into dirt bike paths, leading back in all directions into the hills. It feels like what a western frontier town must have felt like in the early 1800s. If you could put a frontier town in the jungle. Wood and thatch buildings, no street signs, little electricity, wells for water, dogs and cattle and chickens wandering about freely, and more people on foot than on bikes. As I discovered later from a Danish man who was visiting here and staying at the Guest House and who spoke Thai and Lao and was actually living just across the border in Thailand, it was a town that had been completely destroyed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. We did bomb it back into the stone age, and while the original village had had a single and unique ethnic complexion, after the war the population was ethnically very mixed and so only a few of its citizens are actually indigenous.
It was a little work finding the Guest House. The people here seem more reserved and less friendly and then too when you finally do find it there's no sign to indicate that you are in the right place. There's only a single small sheet of yellow paper attached to the wall giving instructions:
"Find Mrs. Khambo for the key and pay her 3,000 each for one night."
And finding Mrs. Khambo is also a little bewildering, since you have to find someone to find someone to get someone else to get on a motorbike to go find her and bring her back. But the rooms are all locked and so it has to be done and eventually, pushing my hand gestures to their limits I did it and I ended up in a large 12 bunk room with three others, since evidently the three other rooms are being occupied by some NGO's from Handicap International who are here clearing bombs from the war, since evidently there are a lot of them still lying about.
The house was on stilts and so of course the rooms were all upstairs, with a long open veranda along the front. It took me a while to stretch the small mosquito net across my single bed. I would pull one way and it would twist the other, as if it was playing with me. There was no electricity; only a drop toilet; and everyone showered out at the water pump in the open court yard. Two of my bunk mates had evidently gone off to the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was 20 km away toward the border. Across the dirt street was the police station and the officers there, at least 16 with another 10 watching, played volleyball all afternoon. When I got back from lunch I put on some socks and my sweatshirt since it was that chilly, and that was the first time I had made use of either of them.
There was the Danish man and two other farangs there, and eventually the four of us went to dinner together, after meeting in a random fashion throughout the afternoon. We were a strange bunch both collectively and individually. The Danish guy was 48 and retired; he said he was working on a phrase book, but it was hard to tell how important it was to him. He has a shack for a home up in the mountains someplace just across the Thai border, and he has a son who has married a Thai woman and lives back home. He has sworn off women, since he thinks they are all out to trap him in a marriage. "They are all whores looking for an easy life; they'll tell you they love you after fifteen minutes, and I try to tell them that's not what love is, but they won't listen." He still dominates the conversations for the most part, and while he enjoys speaking with people he also seems to enjoy the power of being a foreigner and the power that speaking the language affords him.
The second guy is from New Zealand. He arrived last night around 9 after hitching from Savannakhet, and he's carrying a surf board with him bound up in its special case. And you might want to consult a map to get a sense of how strange this must appear to the Lao and to the rest of us as well, but he says it was worse earlier when he was carrying three boards and he had to leave one behind for a while in Kuala Lumpur and the other got mangled on a local bus some place in Thailand. He's 22, and is part Maori and wears an ivory fish hook, and comes from the northwest coast of North Island, New Zealand. He has been on the road for 17 months, and like the Danish man he too can't stop talking. He is physically a bundle of energy and while he stands talking to you he waves his whole body as if he is surfing, swinging back and forth. But most of his stories are depressing.
Today for example he and the third guy, an architect from Australia who is traveling alone for 6 weeks after passing his Master's degree, went looking for the Ho Chi Minh trail, and it's interesting to hear their separate versions of the same story. The New Zealand guy tells it as a story about people who were constantly trying to scam him, while the Aussie tells it as a tale of linguistic misunderstandings. Basically they got a guide and a driver to take them the 20 km to the trail for 10,000, and when they got there the guide showed them a couple of tanks on the trail, and then he wanted 12,000 more to show them an airplane, and when they didn't want to pay that he explained that it was 10,000 each for their time, and rather than pay him what was for them the additional 10,000 somehow the guys gave up, paid 12,000, and hitched back to town.
At dinner the New Zealand guy told another story of being on the bus from Vientiane to Paxson (on the way to Savannakhet) when he had gotten 90,000 kip pinched from his bag, and a young woman he was talking with had her camera taken. Then, a couple of days later in Savannakhet they saw the camera in a shop, and the people there went with them to the police station which had one uniformed guy out front and a number of un-uniformed guys inside. They filled out a lot of papers, paid 15,000 and got her camera back, and it was only later that evening when they were talking to two other women who had, by chance, been to the police station that day, that they realized their station was a sham, and they had been scammed again. He has stories like this about every country.
But his temporary Aussie mate is the good news to his bad news and is basically grateful for his experiences, although he has been sick a little. For dinner he just wanted fried rice and when they also brought him a bowl of soup he spooned out all the vegetables and pieces of chicken one by one and then just drank the broth. Still, he was genuinely happy for the experiences he was having, although, he confessed, he was a bit homesick as well.
Before meeting these three gentlemen I had spent a pleasant day in Sepone. I had taken a walk out of the village down a jungle path and ended in a huge clearing with the largest school I had seen. It was five separate large buildings and no other village nearby, and in the evening I tried to use my facility for rudimentary and creative sign language to buy two cassette tapes of Lao music at the cassette stall in the market and succeeded in drawing a nice crowd that played charades with me, laughing at me all the while, but eventually I got the tapes I wanted. At lunch when I had first met the Danish man at the only restaurant that said "Restaurant," he was helping them create their first Lao/English menu and its 15 items were clear and impressive when he was done, with the possible exception of his having called "sliced beef and onions" "sliced ox and onions". And the woman who ran the restaurant (and throughout Southeast Asia it is almost always women who run the local food stalls and restaurants) wanted to fix us a special Lao dish for the evening, something with minced meat and vegetables, and she was ready for us at 6 when we returned, including making our two helpings feed four people.
But my lasting impression of Sepone has another source and comes from another time. Because twenty years ago the Americans really bombed this town. During the war the people lived in nearby caves, and all over town there are signs we were here. There are the countless craters and the blank walls of the bombed out and gutted buildings, and there are shell casings propped up like garden gnomes all around the town, one of them reading on its side in paint: "Here's death to you from the USA." And just recently, in the last few weeks the UXO people from Handicap International have collected over 70 bombs from this neighborhood alone, twenty years later and many of them still alive and dangerous. Then driving to the border the tourist guide pointed out a bomb 10 feet high resting upright by the side of the road, and he told me that when he was a student in Savannakhet during the war he could hear the sounds of the bombs falling day and night off in the distance.
The effect of all of this makes the people somewhat cold I think. Many of them, according to the Danish man, still have nightmares about the war. But there's also a sudden reserve about their faces as soon as they realize that I'm an American. This isn't true of the children, of course, who live in a different time empty of memory and who just seem to regard all foreigners as simply foreign and therefore interesting, but there seems to be a special memory of time here for many of the adults, as if the past has not completed itself, but is a living part of the present, as present and potent as the unexploded bombs the UXO people are collecting. This presence of a remembered time of death was my fourth experience of death in Laos, a county that otherwise is simply a country of life. For Laos was a wonderful experience for me, and in some ways being out here in this village was a good way to end the trip, and the easy ride to the border the next morning let me leave the country as I entered it, with enthusiasm, ease and joy, and most important of all, with a desire to come back into its time and embrace.
Ten O'clock: The Border [Over time.]
For both sides the border crossing must be a form of Siberia for wayward clerks. Laos let me out easily enough but Vietnam was a drip by drip methodical encounter with boredom. I filled out the forms they wanted and moved from office to office and eventually had to list my camera, computer, and radio as possessions, though I didn't have to tell them how much money I had, which was a question on the form, and actually they physically wanted to see those three items, but then 45 minutes after I had begun the last man waved me on through. Outside waiting was a young man with a motorbike who was willing to take me to Khe Sanh (some 19 km up the road) but he wanted $5 (in dong) and so I got him to take me to Lao Boa, 3 km up the road for 10,000 so that I could go to the bank, but of course there was no bank, just a crowd of people pressing around as I changed $50 for 55,000 dong on the street with one of the young women. Then I let him take me to the Guest House in Khe Sanh, and by 10:30 I was into my somewhat dingy and dark room, and had my cold shower.
I choose Khe Sanh because it was only 19 km across the border, and because it was supposed to be a pleasant mountain town, and I thought it would be an easy reach coming into Vietnam and give me a more daylight time to adjust to new faces, new customs and a new language. It was also an important Vietnam war base and I thought I might get a sense of that, and in fact back at the top of the Khmer ruin of Wat Phu in Champasak when I told the young Aussie woman I was going there she started singing a rock song about Khe Sanh and was joined by her two companions who completed it with her and then compared various versions by different artists.
But the real Khe Sanh is not a song. The base itself was closed during the war and bulldozed under. In fact later the Viet cong are said to have unearthed a usable bulldozer from the site. It was the site General Westmorland was trying to defend when the Viet cong crept around it and launched their Tet offensive which ultimately I suppose was the American version of Dien Ben Phu. But now there isn't much to the real town and it certainly isn't picturesque although the landscape around it is. Part of my impressions could be slanted because I had just come from Laos and because while I was there the weather was dreary, overcast, and chilly. I had planned to stay two days but I knew before I put my pack down that I would be heading out to Hue in the morning, praying for sunlight on the coast.
On first impression the people here seem to let you go by without staring, though a number of kids shouted "hello" to me, but there was something else unsettling about the town. It was a typical town: paved road through the middle, dirt streets everywhere else; small dirty shops, no streetlights; a few larger public buildings. In the afternoon I took a walk through the mud of the market and then up the hill to two cemeteries, one of which looks like a cemetery for the war dead. But, on the hill just above it the ground looks like it had been flattened and then carved into deep trenches, although the view from there over the mountains was extraordinary.
The Guest House in Khe Sanh, the Nha Hang, was a double story building in the shape of a "u" with the front side, along the street, missing and a large inner courtyard. The woman, who took my money gave me room A2, which as you face the Guest House from the street is the second room on the left. There wasn't anyone in A1, and in A3 there was an old woman and what appeared to be her grandson. These details are important, and so I hope you've got the picture so that this next story will make some sense, and then maybe some day you can tell me what it was for and while I feel compelled to put it into this article on Laotian time.
I went to bed shortly after listening to VOA at 8 and was awoken at midnight with loud shouts, the shattering sound of glass being broken in the window of the room next to my door, and the scatter of scurrying feet. My guess was that someone had thrown a rock through the window, and, ethnocentric as I am I wondered if it was intended for me since all day whenever people had asked me what county I was from, I told them "America."
I got out of bed, crawling out from under the mosquito net, but I didn't turn on the light or open the door. I still couldn't ascertain what was happening. The woman and the young man in A3 were screaming in Vietnamese, "Thief! Thief!" I suppose, and then there were just voices talking. Eventually I opened the door and looked outside, but there didn't seem to be much going on, and so I went back to bed. Then shortly after 1 there were two loud thuds across the courtyard as if someone had thrown something heavy against the side of the building, and a shadow moved down the outside corridor next to the window I was sleeping under, and there was what appeared to be the rustle of branches or brush being scattered by my door, and the sound of a liquid being poured and I decided that someone was trying to set my room on fire, and it was only then that I realized that there was no other exit. I was in a concrete box with bars on all the windows. So, I got up and got my mace and my small flashlight. I decided that I would at least face those there were trying to kill me, but when I opened the door there was no one there; at least not in front of me.
Out in the dark across the street there were five or six single lights moving, and shouts and two minutes later five men appeared out of the darkness into the dim lights of the courtyard, heading up to the reception area in the far corner. One of the men was in a police uniform, and like four of the others he carried a heavy wooden baton; the other, a young man in his early 20s was wearing a tench coat and was their prisoner. They took him into the reception room, and while three women who managed the Guest House stood outside the open door, they yelled at him and occasionally struck him with a baton. He seemed to me to be whimpering; he was certainly coughing, and he seemed drunk or drugged as he wandered aimlessly around the room. I went for a closer look, but no one seemed to acknowledge my presence. After a while the man in uniform, accompanied by the woman who ran the Guest House came over to my side to inspect the broken widow pane. It was then that I noticed how close it was to my door, and how from a distance it seemed to be my window. And there on the ground in front of our rooms were 4 large broken branches off the small trees in front of our rooms. The woman picked up a large wet towel from the ground and made a gesture towards the window indicating that this is how the man broke the window pane. The lights were dark in the room but I could see the two faces of the young man and his grandmother inside, watching as they sat, huddled, on the bed in the back corner. The policeman went back to his interrogation and his beating; the man continued to whimper and cough. The host rode away twice on his motorcycle and came back. I went to my room, and put my torch and mace under my pillow and in 15 minutes all was silent, though I can't say that I was asleep.
In the morning at 6 when I stepped outside my door the young man from next door was there, standing in the doorway, and I could see his grandmother's frightened face as she sat on the bed in the far corner. On the floor of the cement corridor directly in front of his window there were large stains of blood, but I had no way of knowing whose they were, and when I nodded "good morning" and tried to show my concern, he ignored me. All around outside was a thick fog and for the first time since I had left America I realized I was in a place I didn't want to be in. I couldn't make sense of the violence. It seemed pointless. I couldn't see how anyone's life had been made better by it or even what it was for. But it left behind scars, dried blood and fear, and in that morning's fog the fear was palpable to me.
I can't pretend I know how the Americans felt who had to defend their jungle base at Khe Sanh, or how the North Vietnamese felt who were attacking what they believed was a foreign disease in the body of their own country. I can't pretend to know what it must have felt like in April, 1975 to watch the Americans flee, and to watch the dominoes fall in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I can't pretend that I know how the racoon felt or the people watching him die, or why the young man in the trench coat pointlessly broke a window pane, and branches off a small tree. In Laos and in Vietnam they are still collecting the bombs as they are the land mines in Cambodia. So, violence is close in Southeast Asia, as close as the next step or the fall of darkness, but until I crossed this border I had never felt that it was real, but in that morning's fog among those faces the deeper fear was that I didn't know what it was for, and I knew I never would.
I went back inside my room, shouldered my pack and walked out the door at 6:30 a.m. and started walking up the hill toward the bus station, when a bus came by and I got on, because they said to, and they scammed me before I could even sit down, and though I didn't know it then, in 5 hours I would be getting off another "bus" in Hue, stepping into the sunlight, and having my hand kissed because I had helped a drunk learn how to tell time, something, that when I stepped on that first bus, I knew I couldn't do.
Eleven O'clock : Retrospect ["Taking Time"]
Of the four countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia) I visited on this 90 day trip, Laos was certainly my favorite, though it is difficult to capture the particular quality of its enchantment. When Yoi stood by my table that first night in Champasak he said he thought that the Lao were not aware of their real value, which is an ability to know how to "take their time." You can see it, he said, when the tuk-tuk drivers wait for ½ an hour for a fare in front of a hotel rather than cruising the streets. You can see it in the women chatting in their small stalls waiting for a sale, or in the men who run the boats or the buses, as they wait for them to fill before they embark. Time is not a clock time for them, even if the end of the journey from Vientiane to Paxse is 18 hours away. Almost no one in Laos is in a hurry, he pointed out, while people in the rest of the Western world have to use the money they earn at stressful jobs, in order to buy time and come to places like Laos so that they can slow down. What good is lao lao if you can't drink it, he asked, and I think there is a deep truth in what he was seeing. The Lao know how to "take" time, while we have let time take us. We live in a world of clocks, while the Lao live across the border.
In a more personal way I learned to try to finish the moment I was in before I started the next one; I learned that it was important to put an empty space between moments, for it is this empty space that the Lao live in. For example, I would enter a shop looking for something I needed, say something simple like pipe tobacco, but at the same time I was also aware that it was nearly lunch time, and that I needed to get a bus schedule for the next day, and so after the owner told me she didn't have any tobacco and tried to explain to me what shop might have it, I would say "thank you" and be heading out the door when I'd realize that I hadn't really paused with my "thank you." So intent was I to get my tobacco and bus schedule before lunch that I hadn't looked her in the eye; I hadn't been able to linger and finish the moment she and I were sharing.
And then I realized that Harun was right. It wasn't enough to linger, but I needed to be prepared to suspend my search for my tobacco, for my lunch, to let the conversation drift, even to turn aside, to forget my goals. For so much of our lives, I realized, is an expectation of a moment that has not yet come: the weekend, a vacation, the anticipation of opening the mail box, glancing at the answering machine. We spend so much of our lives waiting for the future, forfeiting a present, a woman's smile in a shop, a man sitting on the bank of a river next to us. Or to put it another way, the Lao are masters at not showing up in the next moment where they are expected. They find it easy to step aside from a path they are on (to the tobacconist) and move to another path (having a beer with a stranger before breakfast). Today, tomorrow, the pipe tobacco, the lunch, the bus, the money, these do not matter. What matters is just now, just here, this smile, this moment, to be fully present in the present. To take delight in the unexpected.
So, the more I looked the more I saw how completely the Lao have (without knowing it) reversed our evaluation of time. They "take" time, while we allot it. We measure life by the tasks we complete, and the ones we have yet to complete. Life as a grocery list. Even my teaching is a series of allotted moments: 50 minutes for a class; an office hour; the meeting at 3:00 p.m.. Even my relationships are a series of allotted moments: the evenings set aside for dinner, the time to walk the dog, the time to call my mother. In fact, floating down the Mekong I couldn't find any moments of my time in America that I had not proportioned out in advance, and even when the unexpected happened, the flat tire, the telephone call from a forgotten friend, it got placed into the goal I was moving toward, or moving further way from. A lived eschatology.
Then I also realized how wonderfully the Lao have made themselves inaccessible to time, while in the last decade we have made ourselves more and more accessible. Now with our cell phones, faxes, e-mail and answering machines we live enmeshed in an insistent immediacy. We have allowed anyone to get to us at almost any moment, and almost everyone does. We have raised the speed limit on our lives. No wonder we are exhausted. For us, time itself is becoming the aggressor, and we are its victim, harassed by its demands, fearful that we cannot meet its transient obligations. We often live five minutes behind, in a fog, where time itself is becoming the enemy, sometimes even a violent enemy we can never see, nor contain, nor understand. We don't know how to take time, much less take time back. We don't even have time to set our sins down on the water; we cannot float free.
So letting the river carry me I wondered what it would be like to not show up in the next moment where you are expected (by yourself and by others). I wondered what it would be like on your way to work, to turn left at that corner instead of right, and drive to the end of the block and pull over. But now what? Because allotting time is insidious for us, and so parked at the unexpected corner, we will quickly develop another expectation for ourselves. We'll tell ourselves we're going to call in sick, take a free day, and then we'll go here and do this or that. But we aren't "taking" time when we do this; we aren't "telling" time. We are still looking at the clock, looking at what is expected of us. We have not found the empty space, that has no horizon, an old woman moving her cows in a field, the sound of water running through the rice paddies.
So, what I found on this trip is that I can travel to Vietnam and see the ancient Cham towers or travel to Cambodia and stand in the splendor of Angkor Wat, but no matter how splendid these edifices are, like the Parthenon and Machu Picchu, they are still ruins. Laos too has its ruins, its fair share of temples and Palaces and Wats, but the real attraction is just the people living their daily lives, for it is here that the Lao have created something truly unique and valuable. Will they lose it? Probably. Will they lose it the same way we lost leaving our doors unlocked, and perhaps for the same reasons? Probably. But does it exist? Absolutely. And while I believe that their attitude toward time will change as they become less and less isolated and more and more enamored by the gold that does glitter, still I feel privileged to have visited them at a time when their original edifices were not in ruins but lived in, with the shouts of children and the gentle hum of a bicycle as it passes, with the sound of a net dropping on the water, with the wave of a captain as he beckons me to join him for breakfast, or children chasing leaves under a Bodhi tree.
On my third morning in Champasak I went out at six o'clock to the bank of the Mekong and waited by the stone stairs for my boatman to take me across to the island. I thought we had agreed to meet at six, and I didn't want to keep him waiting. But he was not there. Another younger boy was, and although we didn't have a language to share between us, still I could tell he had a small boat and was willing to take me where I wanted to go. And then at 6:30 another older man showed up in a small boat and offered to take me across, but I said "no" and tried to explain with my hand gestures that I was waiting for my boatman with the large boat. After a while the young boatman left with a fare, and the older man and I sat there, without speaking, watching the sun rise over the river, while I watched the clock tick, and a little after 7 I told myself that it was time to go back across the road and tell Yoi that my boatman had never arrived and that I was going to try to make other arrangements.
So I got up and walked across the road and to my surprise the old man followed me, 30 steps behind. I found Yoi sitting on the front veranda, taking his time, and after I explained my predicament, as he listened patiently, waiting for me to finish, he called out to the old man standing at the edge of the lawn, and they exchanged a few words, and Yoi told me: "This is your boatman. The other man couldn't make it and so he sent this man to take you. You can go with him." And as I took my walk that day, I thought a lot about that half hour he and I had spent in silence together. Why hadn't he been more forceful? Why wasn't he worried about wasting his time? Why didn't he just leave me after I rejected his third offer to take me across? And I realized that Yoi was right; the Lao really know how to "take" time. They don't measure it by money gained or money lost. They step out of time, because every thing they really love about life takes place there, in the present, not worrying about being late, or anxious about missing the bus, or fretting about finding that pouch of tobacco. They are not waiting in time as we would wait, because waiting for us implies that this moment is less important than the moment that is coming, while for them there is no moment better than this moment. For them, time is not the enemy; it is a friend. Thirteen to nine
Twelve O'clock : The End of Time ["Dreamtime"]
In my last night in Sepone, my last night in Laos I had a dream. In it Don Billiar was talking to me with a peaceful quiet intensity. Don was a former member and chair of the English department at the college, and at one point President of the Faculty. He was a distinguished man, almost an English don in his temperament and tone and in his wry sense of humor. He died perhaps 10 years ago of what I suspect was AIDS though because of his sense of propriety and privacy he never said. His friend, partner and our mutual colleague Ted Vaughn was there with him at the end in the hospital and then a year or so later Ted also died of AIDS.
In my dream Don was patiently trying to explain to me that when it comes time to die I should concentrate on the Chinese character for "wholeness." He was adamant about this and kept quietly repeating it to me, over and over, as if teaching me a phrase in another language. "Focus on the character; be present with it as you die. This is very important."
That morning in the van on the way to the Vietnam border the dream came back to me, and as I watched it repeat itself I simultaneously thought what an interesting idea it was, to physically look at that Chinese character at your moment of death, to recognize that somehow it is death that makes life whole, that the world beyond the end of time is connected to time in a larger whole of which we are both part and process, and that if the Lao are right and emptiness is a place of genuine joy, then death too can be an emptiness which makes our allotted time, whole. Time can be an enemy or a friend or even a slide, down into the Mekong, a river, a color of brown that runs clear through your fingers when you lift it from below, something, that carries everything anywhere and always, without end.