Ports and Departures
Despite all of the new scenery, the passing villages and the different sounds along the river, life in the boat exists in a sort of bubble. Every day is long meditation on a fixed point that changes every kilometer or so, depending on the terrain. The pilot must keep his eyes fixed on this point – a tree with particularly bright coloring, the flash of a tin roof along the river downstream or one of the various cement markers placed to guide the bigger boats downriver in the rainy season – green tipped ones to our left, red always on the right. Otherwise, it’s hard to keep the tiller straight and we wander off course, wobbling drunkenly down the Mekong. It’s impossible to imagine navigating this river during the rainy season, actually. The torrent must be absolutely unreadable and the placement of the markers shows that it must normally be 10 to 15 meters higher than it currently is. The pilot’s meditation is broken by the occasional need for bailing. The Pohoda takes water from a few places, but the worst culprit is the hole through which the drive shaft exits the boat. It is cleverly sealed using a piece of tire rubber glued to the planks and reinforced with thin wooden shims nailed down to the boat, but the hole where the rubber stretches around the drive shaft still allows a slow trickle of water that fills the bilge in about half an hour or so. We are also leaking from somewhere midship – I suspect one side, where the rotting support beam barely clings to the hull by a couple of rusting old nails. It’s a constant fight to keep Amber from parking herself on this central beam and she never ceases to cast dirty looks and moan about how much her back hurts when I ask her to get off of it. Gerben and I keep promising each other we will take a look at the leak when we reach Nong Khai in Thailand again, where I know that we can buy some quality sealant and new screws without being hassled and cheated by the Laotian bums along the way.
Everyone talks about Laos as being the “Land of Smiles” – it’s even emblazoned on the Beer Lao advertisements – but the reality is much different. In the cities along the tourist trail, everything is difficult and everything is expensive, unless it fits within the well-defined limits of what tourists are “supposed” to do. This mainly includes spending a lot of money of second-rate “local” handicrafts and “eco-tours”. Eco-tour is a tedious euphemism for being driven out to a dirt road in some gasping old four wheel drive and made to walk around staring at yet more stalls of “Lao weaving” and Chinese made teeshirts on the way to some underwhelming cave or waterfall. Everyone who is not associated with one of the approved tourist businesses treats foreigners with barely disguised avarice and contempt. Prices for everything are normally inflated to twice the local rate, and the shopkeepers so incredibly lazy that they will not even get up from their bed/TV combination corners to make a sale or look for another missing part in the chaos of their hovels. They are not friendly and certainly not charming. The villages, on the other hand, are a lot closer to what one might expect from an “unspoiled” Southeast Asian country. Though not exactly brimming over with joy at seeing foreigners, there is at least some curiosity and the general kind of friendliness towards strangers that you’d expect from any people.
We stopped off at one such place after a full day on the river with James sleeping off his food poisoning and walked into the midst of a heated football match on the sand. A gang of maybe 15 local boys had built goalposts into the sand with bamboo sticks and were enjoying their game immensely when we pulled in and attention suddenly shifted. I went off to get my noodle soup while Gerben joined in the game, much to the delight of the locals, who massed around the falang, trying to trip him up or foul a pass. The opposition goaltender looked a bit worried when Gerben managed to connect every pass, despite the hordes of kids, and after my meal I snuck up behind him, showing him my finger over lips, urging him to keep my presence a secret. We made Shiva arms against the incoming shots and all the kids got a good laugh out of it. The whole evening was a very welcome release from the tensions and exhaustion that had started to set in after a week on the river. The next day, we were due to reach Vientiane, and the end of Amber and James’ journey. There was some talk of them continuing on to Savanakhet with us, but I made it clear to Gerben that it would be them or me this time and that put an end to the discussions. There was the issue of money remaining, however, and it became yet another sore spot with them. The original agreement was that they would pay for food and petrol down the river, plus a little extra for sharing the cost of the boat once we reached Vientiane, but sadly, we never wrote any of this down. Thus far, I had paid for two of the three fill-ups and Gerben had paid for the water and drinks – the overwhelming bulk of the food costs. Whenever it was time to pay, James and Amber seemed to be conspicuously absent, or their wallet buried in one of their backpacks. We had some talk about it over the campfire that night and James declared that he thought they had paid their fair share. Unwilling to start a confrontation, Gerben sort of passed the ball to me and I resisted, but it was plain that they did not intend to pay another penny. Somehow, the $7 a day they had spent on the trip had “broken their budget” already and they “were not like us” – meaning, presumably, that we were actually paying for the trip ourselves, not with Princesses’ graduation money or something. The only thing worse than talking about money with a cheap person is arguing about money with a cheap person, so I dropped it at last, telling James that he could do whatever he felt was fair. I took that from Barbara, who said the same thing to some Australian witch who laid her seat out flat back on the bus we took from Surathani to Bangkok, squashing Barbara in our fixed back seats behind her. Of course, we both could have predicted how that would turn out. “Your comfort is our top priority,” I told her as she settled back into her illiterate babel about Facebook with her traveling partner. People are swine, to paraphrase Michel Huellebecq.
The next day we took the final rapid before entering Vientiane. I piloted most of the way down, but Gerben told me that James was really looking forward to doing this last rapid and wanted to steer. Your comfort is my top priority. I sat down and let him guide us through the last of the white water, which was fairly anticlimactic after all the days of it we’d seen along the way. On one bank, after a particularly sharp turn, we saw the beached carcass of a logging ship upended on the rocks. Heavy diesel dripped from the rear and the huge teak logs on board were tilting perilously into the water. The ship had been literally tossed about five meters up on the rocks and utterly ruined after trying to take the same turn we’d just made. This one we’d heard about – 8 men had died on board during the crash, and the shipwreck was already something of a legend among the upstream villages. I shot some video of the wreck and we sped on by, now just an hour or two of smooth sailing to Vientiane. In about a week’s time, we’d become pretty capable rivermen ourselves, and probably accomplished what very few people have done in recent years. I think it’s likely that more people climb Everest than navigate that distance on the Mekong anymore.
One last adventure was in store though. Just before Vientiane, the river widens out to about half the width of the Mississippi, rocks disappear, replaced with massive sandbars that stretch nearly from shore to shore. This was something new, and the lack of markers made it much more difficult to read these new hazards correctly. After about an hour of this, I managed to bring us down the wrong channel and we were beached. In the middle of the Mekong, which was probably 700 meters from shore to shore at that point, we got out of the boat into ankle deep water and laboriously pushed the thing forward to where the current finally deepened. Generally averse to work, James made a loud objection when I suggested pushing the boat forward about 10 more meters to rejoin the stream. “Just for the record, I think this is a bad idea. I’ll do it, but I think it’s the wrong way,” he said. In 10 minutes, after some minor heaving and lifting, we were floating downstream again. Just for the record, he never apologized to me for pitching his little girly fit in front of everyone. What a surprise. An hour later, we finally got them off of our boat and they disappeared up the bank with their massive backpacks and Canada patches. Not a word of “thank you” to us for sharing our plan, our boat and our time. James did slip Gerben a wad of wrinkled bills before he slunk off – about $10 US and a few worthless Vietnamese notes thrown in. Wherever they are now, I could care less, but I hope that someday when they grow up, they’ll realize what we did for them and find some way to repay that debt to some other young and a bit-too-proud travelers who end up in a similar situation. It’d be nice to believe that will happen someday.
Rid of them, Gerben and I looked around at the trash-strewn mud of the Vientiane harbor and decided to push on to Nong Khai and the fabled hot showers and clean beds of Mut Mee Guesthouse. It was about five in the evening already, and the sun was quickly setting, but neither of us wanted to stay the night in that rat-infested pit. We poled off away from the bank and steered the nose of the Pohoda South again. The ship felt light, buoyant and quicker than ever before. Blessed silence, for once, reigned onboard as we looked to the horizon for the white spans of the friendship bridge.