Going Nowhere on the Bolivan Plateau
Taking the road less traveled has its own peculiar risks, as our humble narrator discovered on a recent unplanned wander through the jungles of southern Laos.
It was a beautiful spread of jungle in which to be hopelessly lost. Tall trees, untouched and primeval held up a thick canopy that blocked half the sky. Thick green plants grew knee high, grabbing at my ankles and occasionally tripping me. It occurred to me, somewhere around hour three of an increasingly nervous walkabout that errant travelers have died in far less remote locales. I sat down on the green carpet, took a few deep breaths and took stock of the situation. My quart bottle of water was still half full, and I'd passed a few streams; I wasn't going to die of thirst. I also had half a kilo of whole coffee beans in my messenger bag. In a pinch I could chew them whole to combat fatigue.
I'd left the stylish Pakse hotel (a mahogany-rich ten dollar per night bargain) that morning and headed East on a rented scooter with the intention of exploring the Bolivan Plateau, a large expanse of southern Laos stretching from the Mekong east into Vietnam. My map showed a roughly circular and mostly paved road that would take me past a number of waterfalls, the curiously named Coffee Research and Experimental Center (where I'd bought the beans), and a number of tiny towns before curving back towards Pakse, a fair sized city in a country not known for fair sized cities. But those plans seemed shot now; the hour was getting late, and I was seriously lost and beginning to worry.
Using my digital camera's 60-second film function, I documented what I thought might be the beginning of my last lucid hours on the earth. Some Lao woodcutter would come across my body and piece together the details of my stupid demise.
"This jungle may well be the scene of JSB's final adventure" I began, pointing the camera up towards my face in good Blair Witch tradition before panning out for a 360 degree sweep and narrating for posterity the numerous twists leading to my sorry fate. (Long story made short: Parked the scooter a kilometer from the waterfall when the path got too slick, took the wrong trail heading back, then zigged when I should have zagged a couple of times.)
It isn't every day a man gets to record his own epitaph, I thought, and continued my wandering. At some point I came within earshot of the thunderous waterfall and long forgotten Cub Scout basic training kicked in - "if you're lost in the woods, follow the water." Using a bamboo pole I'd picked up to ward off snakes I slowly battered a path to the source of the roar. Once there, I was able to retrace my steps back to the wrong path, avoid it, and follow the right path back to my waiting scooter. The engine turned over on the first kick. I pointed the bike towards Vietnam and gunned it, happy to be alive and no longer walking in verdant circles.
I hadn't gotten more than a few miles when a bright light filled the sky, followed seconds later by ominous thunder. Moments later the sky turned from yellow to black; dark clouds converged overhead. It started to rain. Hard. Without slowing down I fished through my bag for the cheap umbrella I'd purchased the week before in Bangkok. I opened it, and within seconds the high winds broke the spokes and shredded the plastic. I took great comfort knowing just how much worse my situation would be had I not found my way out of the jungle in time.
Presently a small shack appeared up ahead in the wet gloom.
The family that lived within the one room shack seemed surprised to see a farrang dripping at their doorway; I may well have been the first white man they'd ever seen, at least up close. They gestured for me to come in, and I doffed my muddy sneakers and did just that, exhausting my Lao vocabulary at hello and thank you. The interior of the shack was dark, and the hammering of rain on the tin roof thunderous, and a naked low-watt electric bulb dangling from a cord nailed to the ceiling was the lone appliance. Except for the children - there were three of these - everyone in the shack was smoking. A hunched old woman brought me a glass of tea, and a middle aged man lounging in the corner tossed a bag of tobacco my way. My attempts to roll a cigarette with the coarse, unglued paper seemed a source of great amusement to the adults; after watching me botch my first smoke, the grandfather took the bag back and demonstrated how cigarettes are rolled in Laos - not with the fingers, but between the palms with a long fingertip-to-wrist sweep.
We smoked together, rain pounding tin roof. My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and I saw a number of large clear bags of tea leaves lying on the floor. Using that time-honored signal of intention to trade - a sweeping you-to-me hand motion - I communicated that I'd like to buy some, and took out a thousand kip note (around a sawbuck American). The old woman smiled and scooped tea leaves into a bag until I remembered the Lao word for stop: jut. The rain stopped, and dizzy from the smoke I bowed out of the shack and continued westward under an ominous sky, messenger bag filled with coffee beans and tea leaves.
A few kilometers down the road and the sky opened up again. I sought shelter in another tin-roofed shack, this one with three open walls and inhabited not by a family but a single golden Buddha statue sitting in sempiternal meditation. I sat before the Buddha and closed my eyes, sitting in the Vipassana style to the sound of heavy rain. Some moments passed, and I began to sense that I was no longer alone. I opened one eye to find myself being looked upon with seeming interest by a child monk and his puppy who had joined me inside the shrine. The boy pulled a straw mat from under his arm and laid it on the wood floor, and I introduced myself.
"Sawasdee, my name is Joshua."
"Sawasdee," replied the boy, "my name is Boy."
I pointed to the dog and asked his name.
"He name is Mickey." Said the boy, exhausting his English for the time being. We continued our meditation together, me meditating on the Buddha and the boy seemingly meditating on me. The dog seemed to meditate upon itself.
Again the rain stopped, and I bid another fond adieu and headed westward. But between the rain stops and the unscheduled three hour jungle walkabout the hour had gotten late. The sun, when it finally peered out from behind the clouds, was behind me. I consulted the map once more; I'd covered barely a quarter of the circuit. Soon it would be dark, and I knew that trying to finish my journey at night would be an act of pure hubris.
Turning the bike around, I followed the setting sun back to Pakse and got there in time to watch it melt into the Mekong.
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Published on 10/24/05