Walkabout

Luang Prabang

I wandered through the little town amongst the orange-robed monks and jagged temple roofs. Fish was frying on every corner and women made baguettes and wrapped them in banana leaves. I found an old mansion with big blue doors and a balcony on the second floor, and for three dollars a night, I had my place to stay. Downstairs, the proprietor was folding laundry amidst posters of World War II bombers and old river men with opium pipes. Half the town was freshly painted with thatched roofs and big arches amidst the ancient wats, but around a few broken-down corners the other neighborhoods started—the same French colonial architecture but with paint crumbling off and the walls and roofs water stained and falling to pieces. People hung out the windows and stared at the bicycles and noodle carts moving slowly along the streets. It seemed as though once the French had gotten in their boats and gone away, everyone just moved in from their thatched houses in the countryside and into the abandoned city, not building anything new so much as setting up home in the grand halls and houses that had been left behind to decay.

I read that once the river trip from Saigon to Luang Prabang took longer than the ship from France to Indochina. It was about the farthest-flung place that one could go in the French colonies, and I supposed that only the most determined exiles had found their way here long ago. Now there was quite a share of foreign temple browsers, and the fish cart men poled along the roads without even a shout to let you know they were coming. When the boats came in, the boys ran up with plastic laminated signs from the guest houses: “bedroom, two beds.” Opium? Marijuana? they asked, and I had to push through them without a word, then saw them pouting behind me, looking for another rube to accost. Plaster hung off the walls of the old post office and the travel agencies. There were a few guesthouses with flowers and vines hanging over their eaves. Beer Lao signs hung above shopkeepers sleeping with their heads on their arms. I watched the river boys taking shots of alcohol from the sun-bleached bottles used again and again. They lolled and hooted on the riverbanks and in the tin flap shacks until the stars came out and the town went silent and dark.

I stayed almost a week in Luang Prabang, walking around and around the little patch of temples and palms on the river bend until I was sure that I could just close my eyes any time in my life from then on and walk through it again, burned forever into my mind. The stone dragons snaked down the hillsides leading up to the temple tops. Saffron robes hung in the sunshine along the temple walls and the monks did their slow languorous ride on bicycles around the town, bringing meat and vegetables home to cook before they prayed. I rarely went in to talk to them, but instead slinked around the empty temple yards at night with my headlamp on, to read in the shadows under palms and golden Buddha thrones. There were two tremendous little bookshops here and I made a whole stack that week and read it all: Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, Wind Sand and Stars by St. Exupéry, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, the complete short stories of Herman Melville, Rilke’s Selected Poems and The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It was a fine week and I lapsed into solitude almost completely, as I tend to do when I have a place to stay with no questions asked. Every night, I went out alone amongst the temples, hiding from the monks I saw pouring water over themselves from silver bowls in the moonlit yards, washing before they went in to light the evening candles and open their study books. I stared up at the moon and stars, framed between the jagged golden eaves. “O man,” Plutarch wrote, “whosoever thou art, and from whencesoever thou comest (for I know thou wilt come), I am Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire; do not grudge me this little earth which covers my body.” When his court astronomer told him the theory of infinite universes, Alexander leaned into his hands and cried. “Infinite worlds,” he said. “And I have only conquered one.”

I read of Melville’s enchanted isles where the ancient tortoises were thought to be mariners who had fallen into the sea. I thought of Melville the young man, jumping ship in the Tahitian jungles and watching his crew depart as he hid in the ferns in a mountain grove. I read of St. Exupéry, who flew his plane across the world, over so many different lands, saying that only when man began to fly did he know what the world truly looked like. “Already,” he wrote, flying from Paris over Africa to French Saigon, “I could feel the oncoming night within which I should be enclosed as in the precincts of a temple—enclosed in the temple of night for the accomplishment of secret rites and absorption in inviolable contemplation.” I read Paul Theroux traveling as a young man, by train across the secret jungles of the world. The great exploring lives which spoke to me like no others. Those who ventured out, who hid amongst the ferns, who sailed through the starry sky, who threw their beaten bags on the luggage racks before the endless staring eyes.

I thought a lot about my previous plans. When I left the United States, I was sure I would become a doctor.

St. Exúpery’s plane went down in the North African desert and all the water casings in it broke. For days, he and his navigator wandered desperately through the sands and on the third day of thirst he found a single orange hidden behind a seat in the plane. He ate it, and he wrote:

For the first time I understood the cigarette and glass of rum that are handed to the criminal about to be executed. I used to think that for a man to accept these wretched gifts at the foot of the gallows was beneath human dignity. Now I was learning that he took pleasure from them. People thought him courageous when he smiled as he smoked or drank. I know now that he smiled because the task gave him pleasure. People could not see that his perspective had changed, and that for him the last hour of life was a life in itself.

I remembered how obsessed I once had been with finding such resurrections within myself. Everything demanded that I live and live, from wine to Plato to Alexander the Great. In the streetlight, the brick doorframe, I sat thinking of St. Antoine and his orange and I lit my own cigarette, bought from a sad wooden candy shack as the sun went down. I smoked it, always thinking of how fast it goes, embers traveling down the white paper until it’s gone in a matter of a few drags, and I was always anticipating its end, though I would have more and more if I wished, indefinitely. The Lao boys came by slowly on their motorcycles, hissing Opium? Opium? in the empty street. I averted my eyes, not wanting to be noticed by them. I saw the girls in blue track suits running down a side street, laughing in their lives which I would never know. For so long I had believed there was a secret place within us all that reaches out for God. Whitman’s youth listening to the raindrops on the roof at night, lying awake. Two foreign girls walked by, gossiping about their friends at work, a continent away. St. Exúpery: “Perhaps it is in this way that oxen work.” And Paul Theroux with his villages in India, restricted only to a meal in a stuffy dining room, he said.

I sat beside a small altar in the doorframe. Five candle wicks, extinguished, drooped out of a smudge of white wax like burned leaves of grass. Beside them was an energy drink, a coffee can; a bowl of sliced bananas, still fresh. Two green cones woven out of palm leaves and stuffed with yellow flowers. In Kashgar, Eric and I followed a raging mob down an alley on their motorcycles but soon turned away amongst the fires and the garbage cans. Opium dealers and teenagers in turquoise tracks suits that don’t reach down to their shoes. The clicking of their stupid leather shoes on the sidewalk stones. And my life with all of its empty doorframes, and scrambles up the steps of foreign temples and waterfalls. I will go to the riverside and sit in the shade of the night, distracted by these solitary wanderers down the streets, each one like a flickering of hope for some lost companionship I seek, and read the saddest lines of all that go, “Lord it is time. The summer, it was immense.”

I found the movie house that the Canadian was talking about, and spent several long afternoons there watching Robert McNamara drag his ruler along the Southeast Asian map. Better to fight the Communists in Vietnam than in the streets of Sydney, it was said. McNamara dragged his ruler down the map. The dominoes would clatter on from Moscow to the end of the continent. And then there was a photograph of him seated beside a top North Vietnamese general a decade after the Americans withdrew. The general was screaming in his face. “You think this was about the Chinese? We’ve been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years!” McNamara was smiling reflectively in the interview. He knew he’d had it wrong. He got into his car silently and drove home and the camera filmed him as he recited his favorite quote by Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I read The Quiet American and it spoke exactly to the point. A young American O.S.S. operative comes to Saigon full of theories about creating a third force in the war to undermine the Communists. Everything he knew was in the abstract and he had never left his own country. He wound up murdered under the city docks, killed with a rusty bayonet in a sordid little alley of a country he had barely tried to understand. Yes, it was so easy to make the war from a map. Ah, McNamara, had you gone out into the moonlit shores when you were young… Had you eaten in the villages and sat at the feet of all the elders you could find… Had you slept once or twice in the houses of the lands that you would bomb… War can be the just and only thing, but you should know what your map looks like as seen from the ground. What a little exploring might have done for your cause.

In Luang Prabang there were no beggars except the pregnant dogs. They dragged their swollen udders along the streets and I gave them chicken sometimes or found myself regretting not having it to give. They were not grateful. They dragged it off in their mouths and gnawed at it, looking back at me with suspicious eyes.

Can I not just resolve myself to do medicine? Why do the sacrifices seem too much to me? What other life would await? What freedom on the high seas after which I would find myself alone, perhaps telling my stories to some youth in whom I would find a searching like my own. And why do I flick the harmless ants from my clothes, sometimes smearing their fragile bodies on my skin? The lives. Graham Greene with his wide-ranging travels as a journalist and his journeys without maps. Oh long life, long life we sing. St. Exupery and his beatitudes of the night sky. McNamara, the interests of our people, dragging his ruler down the maps of a land he’d never known. And why are the jolly tourists on the boats and the quiet cattlemen in their villages meaning less and less to me? The simple souls of man… their drunkenness and rages… and still every passing walker seems a promise of something deep and human and true. To light the way for whomever would come after me, and yet I think of how it would be to live my life again and am exhausted by the journey. The boys that sit on the roofs of river boats; their freedom I imagine. But they must know the wind on their faces and the warm sun going down beneath the hills. Each one living in the long scrolls of our lives, some are trapped in the daily work of the docks, the nights of selling opium, the statistics notes of Len, I with my ancient sadness before the maps. The threads we are, and I have wanted to see the tapestry of man. My restless sunsets by the riverside. The children climb up the broken banks and pole short wood boats from side to side. Night falls. Night again and night at last.

Moscow boulevards, wind and leaves

There will be other nights like these

There will be others just like these

I will travel on in the morning, in the oldest way. As Goethe talked of boarding carriages and how the weather was fine and his spirit soared. He saw for the first time the lands he wished to see. He went through them with his painter friend and stored a thousand images in a traveling trunk. They sat on the hillsides in the afternoon and he painted and Goethe wrote, so many years ago. O souls who’ve come before me, let me always find you here. I know you’ve touched the evenings and seen the fields with moonlight glow. The words that you’ve been leaving, are enough for me to know, how you filled so many evenings with life so long ago.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.