Pieces of Stone and Wood

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I think I mentioned in the last post that neither Gerben or I had ever driven a boat before, which made an underlying punchline to the running joke that was us trying to buy an old Laotian fishing boat in the first place. Of course, buying the boat itself was only the beginning. Ken, our new best friend in Luang Prabang, was in on the take like everyone else there, it seemed like. We saw the boat we were to buy, shook on it with the owner and raced off to the Chinese market to buy a spanking new 9 cc Chinese Honda knock-off. Thrown into the package were the tail, a sheath for the drive shaft, a rudder and a new propeller – most of which were to be quickly discarded the next day. It’s hard not to jump ahead here, but I gave Ken some more money to buy some fuel, oil and a couple of extra spark plugs. He, I suspect, nearly immediately went out and got his friends drunk on the money, because when we went to meet him the next morning to inspect our newly installed motor, he was suffering from a peculiarly strong flu that looked and smelled for all the world like a Beer Lao hangover. I know those ubiquitous monstrosities, although Ken insisted all the while on a flu. He even threw in a sniffle as he explained to us that the man who agreed to sell us his boat had changed his mind overnight.

Thank goodness Ken had another option all lined up. He’d spent all night doing it, probably adding weeks to his recovery time. Never trust a Lao man named Ken, no matter how far you can – or want – to throw him. Conveniently, the ship we were now to buy belonged to one of Ken’s buddies, so we could go and see it immediately. Inconveniently, it was warped like a 5 year old 2×4 left out in the rain. It leaked a bit, but seemed to our trained eyes to be seaworthy, more or less. Ken assured us that it was a very strong boat. Having spent all the money on the motor and sundries, we had no choice but to take it or abandon the whole project and write off $250. We too the boat and Ken promised to have the motor installed “tomorrow”. No, I insisted, you’ll do it now. Sniffle. He displayed indifference and I mentioned that it would be a massive headache to be forced to involve the police.

The lot of us – Gerben, Mareika, Ken, KenFriend and myself – trooped on down to the waterfront and set to tinkering. The Lao peasantry (if I may?) are insanely resourceful, given the crap that they are sold by the Chinese and the fairly demanding needs they have. It’s not uncommon to see them lugging 50 massive bags of chicken feed back and forth along the river or ferrying 15 people in a boat not much bigger than the one we were the proud new owners of. They do it all with toothpicks, wire and stubbornness. KenFriend and Ken are not of this breed any longer. Spoiled by the excessive spending of tourists in Luang Prabang, most of the people have no real need for their fishing boats any longer, and they are not well maintained. Last year’s paint covers bits of rot, patches are patchy at best and the decks are coated with mud. Ours was no exception – not in the positive direction, at any rate. Ken parked himself in the shade of the boat’s tattered bamboo roof, which KenFriend tossed onto the beach in his contempt for being disturbed during his noontime nap.

After an hour or two of half-hearted pawing at the insanely simple mechanics of the thing, KenFriend proudly prepared to mount our new motor to the standing block near the stern. Hammer in hand, he began to drive nails through the bold holes in the base of the motor. “No,” I said simply, and told Ken that they would do it right, with actual bolts, even drilling new holes if necessary. “It’s ok, very good,” was Ken’s answer, and KenFriend went back to hammering. “No,” I repeated in a slightly more serious tone. Gerben and Mareika had disappeared with a gang of grubby local kids at this point, leaving Ken without a good cop. “You’ll do it right or I’m going to toss you in the river.” Sniffling, Ken trudged up the bank to search for the engine bolts and a new block of wood to mount it on. Meanwhile, KenFriend got to work under the boat, fidgeting around with the long drive shaft until it stuck through the hole in the stern and hung there like the nose of some squashed mosquito. It got hot. I got into the water to watch what he was doing and it got hotter still. Ken was taking a nap, maybe. We waited. KenFriend tried to hack holes for the heads of the bolts into the block of wood where the old engine had stood with a rusty old machete. “No,” I said. “You stop that now.” I took his machete away. He sulked, and Ken eventually returned. Handing me the bolts, he explained that they were very expensive. I told him that I’d consider them a gift – in honor of our friendship. He sat down in the shade again to take a nap while KenFriend and I went back to work.

To understand what was and what should have been, a little orientation aboard the Lao fishing boat is in order. Our version is about 10 meters long, narrowing in the front and the back like a cigarette rolled by a high school kid. The nose is snubbed and the tail raises up out of the water to end in a slightly longer flat bit than the nose. There are two holes intentionally drilled into the hull at the stern – one for the drive shaft and the other for the rudder. The motor sits about 2 meters forward from the end of the boat on an angled wooden platform. The drive shaft of the motor is connected to the tube of the propeller drive shaft via a steel sheath that bolts to the rear of the engine. A bit of rubber nailed over the hole allows the shaft to stick out the back end of the boat with only a minimal influx of water. Behind the propeller, the rudder is dropped through another set of holes. At the top, it consists of a bit of iron re bar bent in two 90 degree angles. A long stick of bamboo with a hole drilled in it is fitted over the protruding end of the re bar, so that when you pull it forward the rudder turns left and when you push it back, the rudder turns right. It’s pretty simple, but the whole function relies on a basic few parts.

The first thing KenFriend discarded was the sheath connecting the motor to the drive shaft. This, of course, was because the holes drilled in it did not match the holes on the engine. The Chinese who sold it to us had told us it was a complete kit. Out the sheath went. Then we got to attaching the propeller itself. At the end of the drive shaft, there was a block of round wood. Nobody knows why. When tightened down on the end of the shaft, the propeller binds against the wood, making it impossible for the motor to spin. It was getting to be 4pm, so KenFriend opted for a smaller, older propeller. “Better,” said Ken from his shady spot. He somehow managed to get it all together when the actual fishermen started to wake up from their naps and came to inspect the idiot foreigners’ new boat. They tore his work to pieces and a few of them set about re-making this and that. Finally, the boat moved under its own power, although if left untended it preferred to make a tight circle in the middle of the river. This was due to the engine being mounted about 6 centimeters off center. We paid him and took our boat to the other bank of the river. The night previous, during dinner, Gerben had met “British couple” who really wanted to join us on the boat. We ate together and decided that they could come along upriver if they wanted. James was a cook, and promised to take care of all the food for the lot of us, which pretty much sealed the deal. We parked the boat down at the docks at Luang Prabang, where I slept in it, surrounded by the Mekong mud, swarms of mosquitoes and the water lapping against the trash-strewn shore. It was a long night, but we had a boat at last. I slept well.

That night was my birthday. Not very auspicious, I thought. Late that night though, relieved from boat watch by the “British couple” who turned out to be an Australian and his Canadian girlfriend, I was treated to a birthday cake from mama and papa at the Oudomphong guest house, complete with candles and “Happy Birthday Micah Jayne” iced into the top. It was sweet of them – one last of the many friendly, helpful gestures they made to help us feel welcome in their house. In the morning, the gang showed up with our food and Gerben brought a surprise birthday present – a chicken. A real live chicken. Not exactly the parrot we’d agreed real pirates ought to have, but dinner, at least, in a few day’s time.

For our maiden voyage, we’d decided to ferry Mareika upriver to where the Nam Ou meets the Mekong. From there, we planned to go up the Nam Ou for another day and drop her with her bike along the long suffering Route 13 to continue her bike adventure up North. Loaded down with 5 people, food, bags and a bike, we steered the newly christened “Pohoda” into the current, chugging along North at modest 7 km per hour. Amber, James’ girlfriend, began talking to the chicken in a piercing baby talk as we settled into the rhythm of the surging water and the gasping motor. I wondered briefly if the boat might actually be a bit small for 5 people, but figured there was plenty to look at. The mountains loomed in the distance and bemused fishermen dropped their nets to stare at us passing. I plugged into my iPod, soundtracking the slight feelings of foreboding away with the Bad Brains “I against I”.

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About themicah

I'm Micah.

2 responses to “Pieces of Stone and Wood”

  1. Bill Jayne says :

    Leeches? What do you have to say about the leeches?

  2. sam jayne says :

    Happy belated bday. Sounds like quite the adventure wish I was there. I got the link to the pictures in your email. Love bad brains!

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