The Sandy Side
A boat on the river is nothing like any other mode of transportation. If you could hold your hand out and feel the heat of the asphalt on a long bus ride or open the window of the airplane to get a breath of fresh air, it might come close. The nearest thing, in my opinion, are the old trains in Central Europe where, if you’re lucky, you can still get seated in one of the rusty old cars with the wide leather seats, smoke inundated curtains tied back and decorated with gaudy plastic flowers. One of the many fading memories of the communist past, when people still thought to allow the windows to open. On the water in our little boat, everything is within arm’s length. Snacks, drinks, the sky and the sun and always the muddy golden water of the Mekong. More than anything else, we must all build a relationship with this proximity and build it carefully. It will affect all aspects of life on the boat.
Patterns are established and people fall into their natural roles, ideally. Like hearing the sound of your own voice, this irritates many, but eventually we all reach a sort of equilibrium where roles are set and respected. Like our lives with the atmosphere, these are also important relationships – they’re needed to keep us from killing each other as we fight the current upriver at a snail’s pace. James, the Australian guy, has some experience racing small wooden boats off the coast of Australia, but quickly determines that this has about as much in common with piloting a fishing boat up the Mekong as my summer picking blueberries in Maine. He and I mainly take turns steering and bailing the boat out. The bilge fills with tepid, brown river water every half an hour or so and we scoop it out with an empty 5 liter oil container. Marieke sits up front, near her precious bike, which has been disassembled and lashed onto the prow behind all the cooking gear. The others take turns resting in the middle of the boat and taking turns bailing, which is a tricky maneuver at best. Moving to the back of the boat through all the people and stuff is the first challenge, but once arrived, the bailer has to negotiate a space with the person steering, who often has to stand to make room. I remember clearly my time working for Ed Vasaio at Mama Zu’s tiny inferno of a kitchen, trying to ferry strainers full of pasta between the cook stove and the boiling 30 liter pots of water on the other side of the tiny room. Ed would be flaming off some veal on the cook side, screaming at me the whole time, “Where are you going, fat ass? You have to learn to make yourself smaller!” Making yourself smaller is an art that not many people have even begun to contemplate. A sad thing, that.
The relative industry of Luang Prabang quickly fades as we head up into the mountains, and every little bit of the shoreline, rich with alluvial mud washed down during the raining season, is planted with little gardens. Potato, spring onions – roots and tubers, mostly – grown well in the loose, rich soil. A woman panning for gold or a bemused fisherman takes a break from tending his nets every once in a while to watch us chugging on past. We see almost no life in the water, it’s so dark with mud that all life is hidden in the murk below. It’s a great analog to life along the river, which emerges from behind clutches of bamboo and clouds of mist to splash around along the shore and then silently disappear. We pass a village or two – thatched huts raised up on stilts high on the banks. In the rainy season, this river swells ten times, often flooding due to poor or selfish management of the damns the Chinese have built further North. We see the signs of the torrent everywhere – fishing boats like ours, their spines broken and hulls caught in the roots of massive trees, bits of sapphire blue peeking out from the jumble of unmendable nets and other detritus of river life.
Near midday of the second day out, we reach the Nam Ou, a crystal clear flood of cooler mountain water that empties into the Mekong flanked by a massive, sheer limestone cliff. We break, and examine the map and my little GPS, which is actually useful for the first time since I bought it. As though apologetic, it painted a beautiful topographical rendering for us, making up for the lack of roads and towns with a brilliant ribbon of blue and the yellow earth of piedmont. We find our location on the map – about a tenth of the way to Muong Khao, where we’d planned to take Marieka. A little bit deflated, we huddled up to discuss the situation. Marieke was upset, feeling guilty about our detour, even though it was my idea to try the boat out upriver where the speed could be more easily controlled rather than heading directly South to the first set of serious rapids outside of Luang Prabang. We determined to push on a little further and try to reach a bridge marked some kilometers up the Nam Ou, where Marieke could hop on Route 13 and continue by bike. With James at the helm, we pushed on more and more slowly against the rapidly increasing current and struggled with shoals and outcroppings of rocks. Finally, we got to a point where the shallow water rushed over a pebbly bed at us and the motor would go no further. At full bore, we were barely able to keep from moving backwards in the current. Rebuffed at last, the Chinese Honda knock off gave up the ghost and I cut it off before one of the complaining pistons launched itself through the crankcase. We drifted backwards down the river and camped beneath the shadow of the looming cliffs that night. The view of the mountains beyond was tantalizing, but it was completely unreasonable to try to continue North with the boat loaded down the way it was. Another time, maybe.
Some lessons were learned, without a doubt, and now Gerben and I were both pretty confident handling our boat. We knew the limits of its power and we also learned to track the often violent changes in current that affected our speed and direction. Half of it is intuitive – following the sound of the engine and the feel of the rudder, with the remaining parts equally told by the landscape on either bank and the condition of the water. Following the sheer cliffs closely yielded the strongest, deepest current, while the terraced banks with their gardens and waving villagers were best avoided if we didn’t want to get trapped in eddies and foul or propeller in fishing nets. Sand bars were common – though not nearly as huge and frustrating as they would become downstream – but submerged rocks were the real danger. On the way, I’d already destroyed one propeller, the sorry remains of which I’ve stowed in my backpack for a souvenir, and James bent our rudder nearly in half trying to escape back down the Nam Ou. We were a bit more sober, but even more excited now that we knew what we had to look forward to. The four day trial voyage of the Pohoda had been a great success, despite our disappointment at not having made even a fraction of the distance we’d hoped.
Other, less pleasant things were developing as well, and everyone on board was worried a bit about it. Amber and I had a serious personality clash building, and it wasn’t really clear how to defuse the tension. When Gerben suggested bringing them along, I immediately rejected the idea in my head. I know myself pretty well, and I know that my reaction to people is usually determined and fairly immediate. It’s also fairly difficult for me to change my mind once it’s been set on course. The prospect of a week or two on a little boat with people I didn’t know was sort of a terror for me because of this, but I decided that I wanted to take the opportunity presented and try to help myself “be a better person,” as they say. This is in retrospect, of course, and I debated even talking about any of this here, but decided that it’s been an important part of my trip thus far. Simply put, Amber drove me up a wall with her constant, inane chatter and sickly sweet coupling with James. She couldn’t swim, which made it next to impossible for her to safely perform any useful function on the boat, which always needed attention paid to it in order for all of us to be safe. To make matters worse, she had that particular “strong western woman” attitude which dictated to her that she could do anything as well as James, Gerben or I could. She couldn’t, and I chafed at her constant under the breath snipes at me when I asked others to jump out of the boat and push, for example, or navigate through the seating area to bail. Even keeping order on the boat – a pretty necessary discipline when 5 people and all their stuff are occupying about 10 square meters of space – proved well outside of her sphere of interest, and so the game of “has anybody seen the…” started up, along with a healthy collection of soaked bits of cloth, rubber bands and “cool” looking bits of wood and bamboo she collected from shore. I didn’t react well to any of this and rather than try to modify her behavior a bit, as might seem natural to someone who is essentially a guest, she just carried on in ignorance or contrariety. I have no idea which. She came off as a spoiled kid, and did little to prove otherwise the entire trip.
When we got back to Luang Prabang and set about buying the spare parts and new supplies we’d need, James and Amber were still undecided about the rest of the trip. Some of the rapids had shaken Amber pretty badly, and we knew there were much worse to come downstream. People had told us about steel hulled cargo ship being capsized by the roiling water and smashed against the rocks. Everyone on board, of course, died in each case. As I prepared for sleep the night before we were to set off for Vientiane, I talked about the situation with Gerben and Marieke. This time, I openly said that I wished they would decide against coming, but Gerben was quite happy with the arrangement as it was. I can’t fault him for being a more positive, accepting person than me and I still don’t, but I knew well enough at that point to be seriously worried about my own piece of mind and James’ reaction should I lose my temper and whack Amber over the head with a paddle. Probably not so good. At ten am, two hours after we’d decided to set off, James and Amber scrambled down the muddy embankment to the boat, Amber clutching a bright new Chinese life vest. “Isn’t it just the sexiest thing you’ve ever seeeeen?!” “Shit,” I said, and scowled down into the Mekong mud.