June 20, 2015

Short stories from Laos : red earth and river green




After a last stretch through North Vietnam, my visa is almost expired so I decide to cross to Laos overland. I take a seven hours bus to Dien Bien Phu, the nearest border post in the north-west. The road is genuinely terrible and we (the six westerners + their luggage) are jangled in an almost empty bus and smothered by the dust coming from the road. We make random stops along the way, waiting for the construction vehicles to clear the path, and locals swarm around us, pointing and laughing and offering us food. At nightfall, we arrive in Dien Bien Phu and after swallowing my last bowl of pho while watching my last vietnamese sunset, I find shelter in an old homestay across the bus station, and I collapse on my bed. I wake up at 4am the next morning and carry my bag back to the station. Another bus takes me to the border post. We reach the border for sunrise and we wait for the visa officer in a building so silent it seems abandoned. After a relatively uneventful crossing, we get back on the bus, direction the nearest town in Laos, Muang Khua. On the way, hmong families walk on the side of the road carrying their things in plastic bags – it looks like an exodus. An old man with amber skin and incredible grey eyes stares at me with a fierce expression and his face haunts my thoughts for a long time. We move in different directions on the same road, and I wonder why they are fleeing, what they are leaving behind.

***

Mama,
having you join me on the other side of the world is a bittersweet experience. I watch you going through the airport doors and I am wowed by your determination and courage. I hold you in my arms, hair whiter, limbs skinnier than I remember – and I say : You did it, you did it, I'm so proud of you – and I am.
I know I'm a handful, Mama, believe me. I am rarely where you expect me to be, I take risks when you want me to be safe, and when you think you understand the rules of my life, here I come turning the chessboard upside down and making up new one. Here I watch you being sucking in by the hurricane that is my life. I guide you through the streets, pretending I know where we're going – but I realize that you follow me blindly, and your trust gives me wings. When you're not looking, I marvel at you unveiling treasures of courage and audacity in this strange place. You learn your way through Luang Prabang night market, try new and spicy foods ; seeing your face lit up when we enter a new temple makes my day. In your innocence I find again this feeling that I had when I first started traveling – seeing things like it's the first and last time, letting yourself be awed and amazed, even though you don't always understand what's in front of you. You bring me back to an ingenuity that most travelers know to be hard to hang on to, and I am grateful.

***

Leaving the red dust of the road for the green waters of the river. Sitting at the bottom of a small painted boat, my legs hurting from being crossed too long. It's cold on the river and we burrow in our sweaters and scarves. Fog is slowly rising, offering us the sight of the banks, between jungles and small brown beaches. Sometimes a ray of sun falls on my face and I try to focus on the warmth – sometimes the boat slams into a rapid and cold water sprays inside the boat, making us scream and giggle. We pass small villages along the river, settlements made of golden bamboo cabins, holding on to the flank of the cliff. Children half naked play in the water. Men with lean muscles throw nets into the water. Women stand with water up to their waist, having their morning wash. I close my eyes and the river rocks me to sleep. This is how movement stops feeling like movement, and become stillness. And so I let the river carry us to the next village, the next stop, the next bus to board. Still, for a few moments.


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