The Road to Laos, Part One

We hitch a ride on a tractor; the driver is an eleven-year-old girl. A couple from Hunan is in the back, holding a baby. They’ve come to visit their brother, who has married a Dai girl and moved down to Xishuangbanna. They met doing migrant work in Guangzhou.

We twist in and out of the vast, dry buffalo fields where little children strut by, waving tall bamboo poles and fighting each other in the dirt. The jungle rises up on all sides like a great green bowl.

They let us off and turn down a steep dirt embankment and the tractor disappears into the wild bushes and trees. Another ride in a pickup truck gets us to Damelong and we all sit in the back smoking Amira’s cigarettes.

Damelong lunch: beef, potatoes, mushrooms, corn. I walk into the back and they show me all the raw food on the wooden counters and I pick some and they cook it up: delicious. Amira is feeling sick and decides to go back to Jinghong, which is easy since the town has a bus that goes there. Ethan and I decide to stay, perhaps indefinitely; we look over our maps and find mysterious places named after wild elephants and crocuses.

After the big lunch, we walk out of town across the bean fields in the setting sun. We go through a few chimney-smoking villages and up to a forest of rubber trees. The afternoon is golden and the shadows are cool. The sun casts perfect tessellations through the branches, and the air beneath the canopy looks like a waterfall in the streaming light. We decide this is a place to sleep for the night, which is more of my decision since Ethan says he’s never slept outside without a tent before. I appreciate the respect he shows though; he’d trekked around Ethiopia alone, staying in villages, and did the same in Papua New Guinea for six months after working as a schoolteacher. He was my age exactly and every country he’d been to opened up in my mind as a true adventure; he’d only been to a few outside Australia, but they were wild ones.

Throughout the walk we’d talked about Papua New Guinea: men who would cut down power lines in the jungle put up by the government; the expatriates maddened by isolation, like a man he’d met in Port Moresby who rented helicopters for expeditions and expensive leisure. He had a Maserati and since there are only a few hundred miles worth of paved road scattered all over the country, he’d drive it around and around in circles on the airport runway. I had five months ahead of me, almost, and by now I’d made my decision to get to Papua New Guinea.

Ethan talked more about his schizophrenic friends in Australia and the psychological need for a tent. He’d been hiking for a month alone in Tasmania where you had to bring a satellite beacon in case anything happened to you. Rangers found the skeleton of a man picked clean by the devils that had ripped into his tent after he’d died of starvation.

Australia was mainly boring, he says, “hey.” He said “hey” after almost everything and I thought this was great. It’s all flat desert or giant farms. Kids in the country drink and smoke pot, leap off trucks onto the backs of hogs to knife them to death. In the city they do pills.

This would be Ethan’s last trip for a while. After the New Year, he was moving to Canberra to work for Ernst and Young. He tells me that his grandfather had died and left him a small fortune; “But I feel like I should do something with my life,” he says. He would move to the city where he would be an accountant. The village is noisy and Ethan makes a good point that you don’t want to sleep where anyone will find you, especially drunk kids roaming around with nothing to do. The night falls and I listen to the cuckoo koo koooo of the birds.

We woke up in the rubber tree field amidst the evenly spaced planted trees. The morning sun gleamed off the rice fields and the hills were blue and green. Farmers stood in the paddies barefoot, up to their knees in the shimmering mud. They kicked and rode Sputnik farm machines that belched with thick, black smoke and putted along digging furrows and aerating the paddies. After a salty noodle breakfast in a small village, we walked through more rubber tree forests and along the hard dirt fields where farmers worked tiny plots of land next to greenhouses made of plastic wrapped over woven sticks.

It was sweltering by late morning and the farmers kept working, stepping silently along the paddies and scattering rice seeds or chopping wood. The wood chopping made hollow echoes over the flat land and the sky was wide and empty. There was no sound but the chop chop chop and the tweedling of birds. Between all these sounds was silence.

I wanted to know their sense of time. I thought of a man I met in Guangxi who lived in a stick house with nothing in it. It was all built by hand from sticks twisted together with dried fronds of palm, sturdy and simple. The roof was caulked with tar but the walls were sticks and let the wind and rain in.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree; And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee; And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

There were no books or lamps. There was a candle stub and a blanket on a bed of sticks and straw. He told me that he lived alone.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow; Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow; And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

The peasants chopped and chopped and chopped. The sun went higher, hot in the sky. I wondered what I believed in anymore.

Ethan and I walked into a temple, empty because the monks had gone away to lunch or to beg alms. On the ceilings were giant paintings of Siddhartha’s life. In each one he sat in a forest meditating with his eyes closed under the Boddhi tree. In the first painting he was surrounded by gnashing tigers, in the next, by thieves with spears and knives. His body got weaker and weaker until his ribs showed through pale skin. I thought of what it would take to go away from home back then.

Ethan and I decided to go back to Jinghong. I still had the road ahead to Laos and thought I could get there by New Year’s Day. We walked back into Damelong and got the bus for a dollar. We sat in the back next to two boys chewing bananas and I asked them what they were going to do in Jinghong, but they just smiled and said “haowan!” “Have some fun!” They wore dirty plastic sandals and ragged farming pants, each carrying a little satchel full of things. I watched them looking out at the fields full of banana pickers hauling bunches on their backs and kick-starting blackened tractors and they smiled and smiled and smiled the whole way there.

Ethan had been sifting through a guidebook on the bus and when we got back to town he announced that he was going north to Sichuan. He wanted to walk around the Tibetan villages on the border. His spontaneity gave me a pang of regret and I almost wished that I could do that too. This was part of the traveler’s mind I think; we listened to each other’s journeys and sometimes they were good stories but more often it was just a list of places and the world grew and grew until it was all too big for time and we felt rapturous and sad. I gave Ethan my puffy jacket from the market in Guangxi, which he would need since Sichuan was very cold. We said goodbye without exchanging emails, which I regret. At that point in the trip I was almost deliberate in thinking that it would be so much better to find someone again only when the world willed it, but it is a wider world than that. I went down to the bicycle shack where the card-playing shop attendants had let me keep my steed during the walk. It was locked up in a closet in a tangle of bungee cords and I was glad to see it again. I hadn’t named it and now felt that I should. All of my Chinese friends had beautiful names like “The Sun that Melts the Snow,” “The Sea of Wisdom” or “The Virtuous One is Watched by God.” Each was three characters long. I decided to call the bike feng sha xing, “Wind, Sand, and Stars.” This was after the St. ExupĂ©ry memoir that I’d not yet read but still I felt I understood. I strapped my things back on it and we went back on the road.

I rode out of town and went ten miles down a winding road through the hillsides along the Mekong and then the sky went dark and cracked and poured out rain. I rode through the fallen gates of a cement factory and put my bike into one of the big concrete culverts that lay in rows in an enormous production yard. At some point my mind had made a switch and the whole world began to look like a giant campground. My first thought upon seeing the culverts was, you could sleep there. I sat under a tin roof hangar and watched the trucks go by in the rain; they bolted through the wet palms along the Mekong with their wipers going, hauling cement and logs to Mengla; some had lao-wo written on them. They were going to Laos.

At the foot of the lush hillside there was a row of shacks with laundry lines and satellite dishes and torn paper festive lanterns hanging from the jagged eaves. Four people sat on a porch in orange hats and green army shoes and I went over to them, hoping they had a fire. They did and I sat with them around it. They had several makeshift tables fashioned out of concrete and jagged rebar. The floor was covered in orange peels. Hoes and pickaxes leaned on the wall of the shack. Through the door I saw a large bed and a television set and a poster of Mao the hong taiyang, the red sun. I said he was a great man, just to test the waters and they all raised their glasses of tea and grumbled in accord. On the hillside, stilt houses made of tin were partially hidden by the trees and dogs, and chickens pecked around in the yards. The people told me they were retired. They seemed happy about this and sipped their cups of tea, staring out into the overgrown factory yard with its giant pipes and rusted trolleys and hooks covered with bushes and vines.

“There is no boss and no more customers,” a man said to me. “That is why we are retired. We used to export everywhere in Southeast Asia.”

“What happened to the boss?”

“Corruption,” he said.

The row of factory buildings was shut up with hasty nails and boards crisscrossing the windows and doors. The doors of a water-stained shack that said “management” on it swung wide like a ghost town saloon. Broken, blue glass littered the floors. I fed two slinking dogs with pomegranate candy that had David Beckham on it, given to me by the old monk in the village where they were opening the temple. The dogs fought amongst the hens for the candy. One of the women had hammerhead eyes. Bright red hibiscuses grew from the long vines crawling through the broken windows and around the oil drums.

In a way, the whole thing made sense; how many scenes of such abandonment would be found all over China as the people left their homes for the cities and the land began to take everything back? The sky began to clear in bright sunbursts. I looked around at the juice cans full of dice and straw and the dogs chewing their tails and the four silent tea-sippers and I said goodbye.

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.