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Always Trust Mama

Savannakhet was truly the big sister city to Thakek, following the same grid road plan and decked with the same double-wide promenades and riverfront vendors as that dusty little by water. There are no less than two bus stations there, and a Chinese market of some repute, as we were to discover later. Riding a couple of bikes rented from the forlorn guesthouse we found, Savannakhet has the feel evoked by a Merchant/Ivory film glorifying the French colonial days in Africa, and even its name is oddly suggestive of some sweltering place other than SouthEast Asia. The one and two-story buildings seem to crouch below their wide, corrugated eaves, dripping sheaves of ancient paint like sweat to the dirt roads abutting them. It is a place that takes some time and a certain appreciation for things that move very slowly and make little sound. It is, like much of Lao itself, a shadow city, a study in decomposition and procrastination meant for nobody and edifying to few. The empty afternoon streets hum the tune to a hundred different songs that might have once echoed from the gardens of the wealthy traders and merchants along the river, but the melodies are all forgotten and merge into each other like the clear water of some little stream mixing with the irresistible golden brown of the Mekong.

Within about a day, we’d spoken to every foreign person in town and they all knew us as the guys who were selling the boat. “Have you any luck yet,” asked the old French guy two or three times a day. “Anyone want your boat?” said the nice, young couple from London. Most people were headed North, and the few others we encountered had already made their plans beforehand. By chance, we ended up drinking out in the breezeway of the guest house with a strange collection of people, each of whom slowly pondered the trip and passed on the chance to continue it. We attracted a sort of hanger-on in a Canadian guy who occupied his time by either smoking copious amounts of weed or talking about smoking copious amounts of weed. He was heading South eventually, but the boat was “too expensive” for him. I wondered how he’d find the Laotian police office I wished they’d drag his stoned ass off to. You read about a Tim Page or some other character of days gone by; about how they lived hard and partied harder in the face of the brutality of war. Whatever people might say about Tim Page, he was no coward and he devoted himself to doing his job under pretty extreme circumstances. You can’t blame the guy for rolling up a joint or two to forget getting blasted nearly in half by a land mine or to forget his best friend, disappeared by the Khmer Rouge at the height of their murder spree through Cambodia. It was part of the time, and that time is long gone. I wish stoner tourists would all get arrested and rogered into nice, quiet lady boys while slapping mosquitoes in some backwater prison. The only downside is that they then feel the need to come out with a badly written book about their experience, begging the world for the pity they don’t deserve and are too proud to ask for in a direct way. Bangkok is full of these memoirs, gathering dust on roadside stalls. “What’s so good about this place? Tell me one thing, I’m curious,” the Dude asked me one night. “It’s not for people like you,” I said. “No matter how long you’re here, you won’t see it.” He also had an annoying habit of pretending that people were not insulting him – making his company harder to escape than a tiger mosquito in a dark room.

During our daytime wanderings, we’d found a place called Mamma’s House Restaurant (sic). It’s nearly impossible to find, but here goes, for all two of you 😉 From Ratsavongseuk road heading South, you make a left turn into a dirt alley right after the where the old television sits in the middle of the sidewalk. You go about 200 meters along this path, pass the little Jack Russel terrier and the snooker table where the girl is standing like a boy and drinking Fanta from a plastic bag with a straw. On the right, you’ll see the local guys playing petanque in the shade of an overhanging second story room – this is Mama’s house. Jooky is the eldest daughter of this amazing clan, and splits her time between the Netherlands and her home in Savannakhet taking care of her aging parents. Everything about the place is warm and friendly, just like the feeling we got from Oudomphong guest house in Luang Prabang. The only conclusion we could draw was to implicitly trust mama, wherever you may find her in Laos. Gerben and I set up camp on th cement table under the veranda and Jooky commenced helping us to do absolutely everything. She phoned up a family friend at the police station and arranged for our visas to be extended. She called around to find potential buyers for the boat. She cooked great food. She talked to Gerben about Amsterdam and to both of us about the joys and problems of life in Laos.

Papa had suffered a stroke two years before which left him unable to walk, but thanks to the devotion of his family, mainly, he had managed to recover well enough to scoot around the dining room of the restaurant smiling at people and waving. He also recovered sufficiently to share a bottle of home-made Laolao whiskey with Gerben and I one night after a giant meal with the family. He grinned as we downed the stuff until the bottle was empty – it tasted like one of the Czech distillates made from some sort of mysterious forest herbs, but we were to remain forever ignorant of its origins, as the recipe was beyond the linguistic power of Jooky or any other of the assembled family members to describe. It comes from a special Lao tree, evidently. We had been invited for a celebration that night with the family because we had finally, after 4 days scouring the town in the dust and swampy heat of mid day, managed to sell the boat. Three girls from Norway and a lone French girl had decided they would go in together and buy her from us. They intended to go North, back up to Vientiane.

Gerben and I were thrilled. Just the night before, we’d been discussing scuttling her in the middle of the Mekong, lighting a can of gas on fire and swimming for shore while she went to her muddy grave. I was kind of sick from the idea. A last ditch effort at the front desk of the guest house sparked some interest and before long, Gerben and I were sitting around the table out back with the girls, talking about supplies, tactics, maps and the power of the motor. We showed them pictures, played back a few of my tapes on the camera and talked some more. The irrepressible Canadian stopped in and started rolling joints and talking about smoking pot. He asked the girls if they knew that we had a boat for sale, and also if they wanted to “sprk up a fat doob.” Victoria, sort of the leader of the pack, stared at him quizzically and said, “We heard that, yes…” He smiled and said something like, “didn’t we meet last night at all?” “Good of you to remember,” said Victoria, who was obviously not having it. His attention then focused on poor Marie, the striking blond French girl, so the rest of us were spared the main force of his continuing monologue on smoking pot and how sometimes it was better pot than he’d gotten in other places he’d smoked pot in – but not always…

The next morning, the girls came down for a test cruise aboard the Pohoda. Gerben and I had gotten up early to clean all of the containers, pots and pans. We stripped the decking out and washed down the boat as well, for good measure. It was too good to be believed that we’d managed to sell the boat, but some added bonus that we’d sold it to a cool group of people who would most likely try to continue the legacy, handing the boat on to another group when they reached the end of the line. It was magic to watch them sort out a seating order amongst themselves, Victoria closest to the tiller, as seemed natural, and Marie unexpectedly hopping up to stand on the prow with the thick bamboo pole Papa had prepared for us in Luang Prabang. One of the girls bought a big black notebook with the Jolly Roger printed on the cover. It was perfect. Gerben and I each wrote a short dedication, asking anyone who encountered the boat to write us and tell us about their travels. We spent the remainder of the day with the girls at the Chinese market, having one last irritating bout with the local thieves. It seemed so familiar – bundles of rope, rolls of toilet paper, which plastic tarp is better, does this have DEET in it? That night they paid us and the boat was theirs. Safe and wondrous travels, ladies; may the Pohoda serve you as well as she did us!

The next morning, Gerben and I were on a bus bound for Pakxe, and the border crossing back into Thailand. Somehow, looking around at the few scattered foreign faces, I found it hard to feel their enthusiasm. It was a rickety old local bus, stopping every 10 minutes to disgorge a belching old woman or a load of motor oil fresh from Thailand and the few white faces on board were glued to the windows. Gerben and I both plugged in our iPods and settled back for what we knew would be a long ride. Already our trip was over. Time enough now to dream up next time.