My Lord’s Words Like Mud
Of all the literature the world has produced, the holy books of Islam, Christianity and Judaism still offer some of the most strikingly beautiful sentiments hidden among the brambles. Along with a bunch of malarkey about “should thy right eye offend thee,” you’ll find gems like “If the ocean became ink for the words of my Lord, the ocean would be finished before the words of my Lord came to an end.” Now that carries some weight. In modern parlance, your local prophet might render it, “God sure can talk.” He’d say it like John Lurie in Down By Law says it to his girlfriend who rattles on in the bed next to him one sweltering Louisiana afternoon. The Mekong after Vientiane sprawls out like that girl in the movie, taking up half the world with its murmuring, muddy nonchalance. It seems as wide as it is long – like the Mississippi above the delta, where you can never, ever be sure of being on dry land for long. It’s a beautiful, murky old thing and the next best place to watch it wander by is from a shady table at the Mut Mee guest house in Nung Khai. Low music and passing curious conversation rules the days and the nights, aside from the interruptions of the various, noisy French children who seem to have convinced their parents to bring them to this place and let them run riot to a helpless chorus of “pas manger, pas toucher!” from their otherwise ambivalent moms.
Our arrival barely stirred a tailfeather in the place, which was exactly what we wanted. The unflappable old Yoga tourists and road-scarred Colonialist adventurer types could have cared less for where we’d been or what we’d done and the boat moored to the floating restaurant below was little more than a curiosity to gawk at on the way to cocktail hour. To be fair, we told Julian, the owner, that we had neglected to obtain Thai visas before landing, but that we would keep a low profile. He didn’t seem to mind – as long as deniability was plausible. He didn’t ask us to sign in the guestbook, anyway. The next morning, after a hot shower and a nice breakfast, we sat in the garden checking our email and suddenly I broke out in a cold sweat. As if on cue, the tourist police – a heretofore unseen phenomenon in Thailand – were making their smiling rounds of the tables. Gerben and I looked at each other, both silently questioning what we ought to do. It was certainly too late to run, and where would we go, anyway? To our speedboat? Certain doom approached, and we heaved a sigh of relief as we heard the head guy describing how Mut Mee guests would be very helpful to him indeed if they could take ten minutes to fill out a survey for him. Needless to say, the Thai Tourist police received high marks from the two of us on such important questions as, “Was the tourist police office stocked with foreign language news media?” We had no intention of visiting to check, so it was 5’s across the board for that lucky office.
We had work to do, but a planned day off was long overdue, so we contented ourselves with lugging our gear up to the patio of our guest house room, much to the passive irritation of Julian, who strikes me as an extremely tidy person. Our work done, we settled in to a few beers and chatter with the local menagerie. Kevin, it turned out, was not just a laid-back surfer dude taking a break from the mind bending waves. A long-term Peace Corps volunteer, he’d worked for much of the last three years in Bulgaria and was taking a few months off to decompress. Contrary to first impressions, he was an extremely tough, observant, intelligent guy, who really deserved the rest he was almost getting by working on the boat. He introduced us to Pim, a local woman who works with Muong tribespeople who have escaped persecution in Laos only to be trapped in a diplomatic and political limbo in Thailand. For helping the CIA during the silent war – the intense bombing of Laos during the 70’s which was evidently intended to halt the march of the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese allies before them – the Muong have been mercilessly hunted and submitted to various forms of political indoctrination by the Lao government. Tourists see nothing of this, aside from a handful who were abducted and unceremoniously murdered in the early 90’s by a particularly aggressive faction of hill people seeking independence from Lao. Army posts at strategic points along the road keep their appearances to a minimum, and the real terror for them happens well behind the line of demarcation that is Route 13 North. Once they’ve made their escape to Thailand, they are usually rounded up and sent to camps along the border, where they await a judgment that will never come. The Lao government demands them back for “re-education”, and if recognized as political refugees, the Thai government is de jure forced to take a side. This would potentially anger the perpetually moral Chinese, of course, and the Thais are a bit at a loss to find a solution. Like the good, weird Buddhists they are, the Thais take the middle path, rounding them up into border control camps, where they are kept in an eternal state of waiting for paperwork.
Pim works with the one group which is allowed to visit and minister to the needs of these people. She advises them as best she can, translates for them and tries to make their lives in limbo a little easier to bear. According to the Thai government, nobody is there (because there are no refugees to help…), so Pim was very cautious describing her work and would not allow me to make an interview with her on camera, which is a pity. She is a UN-grade interpreter and extremely ambitious, despite her outward deference and excitability. I hope she does well in her position, and I am certain she deserves better. The Lao government is a generally contemptible little sloth, and it’d be nice if someone would one day be able to force their ugliness out in the open the way that it is being done in Burma now. Asked about the Muong later on down the road, the Lao people I spoke to clouded over and responded with one voice: “they are terrorists,” followed quickly with a look I could only interpret as beseeching me, as a sort of American, to empathize. Yep. Heard that one before. With us or against us. Yep. A village and its idiots are not long parted, mercifully; in Laos as in Texas.
Later that evening we gave Kevin and Pim a sunset cruise on the Pohoda. Both of them were so refreshingly, honestly overjoyed, it gave Gerben and I a true feeling of peace and happiness that we could share such a little thing. It made me appreciate the trip ten times more than I had so far, and bound us all up together with this strange little crew on the mosquito-infested edge of nowhere.
The next day we entered the fray again at the local Tesco Lotus, buying up massive bags of silicone sealant, new waterproof containers, a new wok and various sundries. My mission was to fix the steering apparatus of the boat with the help of Mut Mee’s local engineer – a 23 year-old guy named Lee. Gerben spent his day racing from market to market to buy all the rest of our supplies for the trip. As the sun rose in the sky, Lee and I ripped out the engine mount, took apart the precariously cobbled drive chain and puzzled over apparently impossible measurements and angles. When I was useless – pretty much any time serious carpentry or welding was involved, I set to work patching the gunwales with lumps of thick silicone caulk. It looked like a scene from the Asian version of the A-Team – cracked commandos, out on the Mekong with a power drill and a Chinese hammer or two. By the end of the day, the boat was ship-shape again, and Gerben had arrived back with a full can of petrol – his last mission of the day. We settled in for one last night at the guest house, determined to leave bright and early the next morning.
Morning came late and sweltering, but we lugged our baskets down to the boat regardless of the hangovers. At the crack of 1, we pulled the boat out of the safety of our little shelter and back into the stream of the Mekong. Kevin and Pim waved from the deck of the restaurant ship until we disappeared from sight. Re energized and restocked, we made excellent time, pushing on until late in the evening, when we spotted a nice spot to camp and crossed back onto Lao soil again. We set up our camp like an experienced boy scout troop and set to work on our potato and carrot curry.
Sometime after sunset, we saw lights wobbling down the beach and Gerben stoked the fire up so we could see. It was the local gendarmerie, out with a curious local farmer for a look at the encampment. They smiled and said things in Lao, we smiled and said louder things in English, Czech, Dutch and French. It was all in good fun, and after a while the soldiers buried their rifle stocks in the sand near their feet, pointing at our map and grinning about our boat. Satisfied that we were just a couple of dopey Falang out for a pointless boat trip, they stumbled off back up the bank to whatever dull, dim lit office they had to return to. They seemed a bit disappointed to be forced to leave our warm fire and Thai cigarettes behind.
The next few days passed like a mirror of the first. Long, languorous progress finally brought us a couple of hours from Thakek when disaster struck. After refueling, Gerben fired up the engine and we had just reached ramming speed when something tore free and a horrible wrenching sound echoed over the water. The motor, propeller, drive shaft and all ripped free of the new mount Lee and I had built and went flying into Gerben’s back at full speed. If not for the precarious little bench I’d nailed to the rear support beam for the driver to sit on, he could have been paralyzed for sure. Lucid as ever, he turned quickly around and switched off the engine, examining the back of the boat for the massive leak we were sure had resulted. Miraculously, the accident hadn’t harmed the boat, and we paddled to the muddy shore under the disinterested local fishermen and a scattering of wives. Not until we had reached the shore did they move a finger to help us, despite the spectacle of the engine clearly hanging off the side of the boat and our frantic waves from mid-river. Safe on land, I found out that the motor mount had sheared of 6 three inch screw neat across the heads, releasing the engine, which tore up through the boat at full speed, driven by the propeller. We needed some big nails, and fast. Neither of us wanted to sleep on this muddy bank. Gerben went and asked the local fisherman with a motorbike to take him for some big nails, to which the fishwife responded immediately, “money.” So much for the goodwill of man. It was dark before they got back, so I worked on diagnosing the problem and fixing some minor damage until the sun went down. Grumbling, we cooked some instant noodles and passed out cold after a few beers.
Morning couldn’t come soon enough. We woke to the heat and the mud, half expecting the entire episode to have been a bad dream and to find myself on the Mut Mee restaurant boat. An few hours and a reality check or two later, I had re-aligned the motor and disassembled and reassembled the drive chain a few times over. Cursing like a regular sailor, I’d managed to “fix” the beautiful new mount Lee had made us with nice, solid nails. It didn’t look pretty, but it was going nowhere. Gerben climbed aboard and we set off for Thakek – the halfway point on the last leg of our journey to Savannakhet. I steered that day, and I swear Gerben rubbed a ghost wound on his back a few times. It was a close thing, and was as close as we’d come to an actual disaster on the whole trip. Whatever Allah might have been saying that day, it was as clear as the limitless mud of the Mekong.