Hitchhiking in Laos
I woke up early in the morning and checked out at the front desk with the night manager. I bought a baguette from a street vendor and some bananas and two bottles of water and a can of Coke. I walked through the town as the monks made their silent saffron rounds in the cool air. I gave some bananas to one of the monks and received his blessing. I have always felt a great affinity for men of religion: I suspect that sometime not long ago, or perhaps sometime not far in the future, I was or will be one of them, too.
The city was Pakse, Laos. I walked north through the streets. I watched the women opening the shops and the men speaking quiet unhurried words as they walked to the riverside. I watched the children with wet hair leaving for school and the dogs stretching their bodies and yawning underneath the cars parked overnight.
Some old men were already sitting in their chairs out the front of their houses with their radios on quiet, their thin grey hair combed neatly over their heads and their sandals and their pale spotty legs, watching all the other people moving about the day. Some of the old men wore berets. These, I suppose, were the ones who met in the sandpits between the houses in the afternoons to play boules. Between now and then, they had only to sit and read the newspaper and drink their tea and roll their cigarettes and smoke their cigarettes and listen to their radios.
An old lady opened her wooden shutters and waved to me from inside a dark room. Soon I was outside the town, and there were no people on the sides of the road, only garages and depots and mechanics and petrol stations.
I walked for hours. I stopped from time to time on the side of the road and watched the Muslim ladies pressing the juice out of the sugar cane and bought a glassful and drank it with ice under their umbrellas. The sun gloried up into the sky and bounced back off the road into my face. The cars moved almost as slow as I did through the potholes. My face was covered with dust. My shirt gripped my back under my backpack. I was young and full of bluster; my coat was glossy like a cat’s. I walked faster than I should have. I was very happy.
I covered 25km by noon, when the heat started to make me dizzy so I found a restaurant on the side of the road and ate my lunch watching a cockfight. Savage little beasts, I thought. No reason for them to fight, but they go at it all the same; they stand to win nothing, they stand to lose everything, but hammer and claws they go.
One cock chickened out and jumped over the fence. His owner put him back in the ring. He jumped right back over the fence. The crowd booed and jeered. He didn’t mind. “Why fight and squabble,” he asked with his tail, “just because everyone tells me I must? Just because they jeer me if I do not? I shall sit in my pen and be healthy and peaceful and they can go to hell.” I gave him my own little cheer among all the boos.
I carried on after lunch. A dark man walked up alongside me on the road. He was walking o the next town. He spoke beautiful florid English. He told me he had walked from Myanmar to Laos when he was a young man like I was. His Muslim people were persecuted in Myanmar; he and they walked east into Thailand. They were just as little tolerated in Thailand as they had been in Myanmar; they continued east into Laos, and then down south through Laos. Some of his family carried on all the way to Cambodia. But he had met a local girl here and married her and learnt the language. He had never seen his family again. He was a poor man, and alone from his own people. But he was a happy man. He did not need a radio to pass the day. He loved to walk.
I was sitting on a bus bench in the next town, eating a pineapple. A man hurtled over to the side of the road in his ute, wound down the window with so much extraneous movement of shoulder and arm that it looked more like the window was winding him down than vice versa, and he screamed out “Hey! You! You wanna hijack?”
“I beg your pardon?” I begged.
“You wanna hijack?”
“Well it’s hardly hijacking if you volunteer yourself, sir.”
“You hijack me, me practise Engarish you!”
“Oh,” I said, “hitchhike.” And I tutted and shook my head.
He practised his verb conjugations on me all the way to where the road forked and he went east and I carried on north. “Parsnip!” he said as I got out of the ute, and he said it with such proud confidence that I had no choice but to say it back to him. He seemed very happy as he drove off.
I was picked up almost immediately by a family in their people mover. One little daughter sat right next to me and stared unblinkingly at me for almost an hour. I soon ran out of faces to pull at her and looked out the window instead. We stopped in a town with cow’s blood running along the ground from the marketplace. The daughter got out and made a great show of breathing for the first time in like a whole WEEK, gosh! on account of the farang’s filthy stench, PEE-yeuw. The family refused to let me buy them food. Everyone took a whizz behind the market. We carried on.
The police stopped us at a checkpoint. The family was very quiet. The father paid the policeman some money. It was not enough. He wanted more. The father didn’t have more. The policeman yelled. I cleared my voice and opened my wallet. The policeman noticed me and waved us all through the checkpoint. The family was very pleased with me. Even the little girl pulled her fingers out of her nose to smile at me. The family bought me food at the next town. And then I walked on.
A man carried me on his motorbike. He spoke all the time in Laotian. I do not know Laotian. This suited him just fine. No one had listened to him so well – so attentively – in a very long time. He refused payment at the end of the trip. He had gotten a lot off his shoulders. He was very thankful to have met me.
The afternoon was cool now and it was nice to walk again. The world was green fields all the way to the horizon and buffalo and wooden houses hugged up close to each other for comfort and naked children running along the side of the road and waving to me and shouting “Bye bye! Bye bye! Bye bye!” The air was still. Men dozed in shops. Women met on the side of the road and shared many juicy tidbits. It has always struck me that the less news there is in a place, the quicker it spreads. People were happy here. I was almost run over by a tractor.
The man inside the tractor rolled the window down and flapped me into the back impatiently, as though I had been pestering him for a lift for hours and hours and he was finally giving in out of resignation and despair. I climbed up into the tray. I thought I would take a ride among some sort of tools, or maybe bricks and wood and bags of cement, or maybe a dog or two. I found it full of schoolchildren. It was the school tractor.
“Hello,” I said.
“Bye bye!” they all cried out.
We bumped slowly along through the late afternoon, jittering and wobbling about this way and that, stopping from time to time to release a little child onto the side of the road, turning down lanes and alleys and dirt tracks and then bumping right back up them again. The children taught me some Laotian school songs which were probably full of swear words and were definitely full of pronounciation errors. I do not know any English school songs since children do not sing in year one in Australia but learn how to file tax returns, so I taught them the only song I could think of at the time.
“As I walk through a valley of shadow death,” they volleyed out.
“No!” I cried. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
“As I walk through a valley of shadow of death.”
“Good! I take a look at my life and realise there’s nothing left!”
“Good! I take look at life and (indecipherable) nothing left.”
“No! No ‘good’!”
“Then bad?” said one of them.
“Excellent!” I recovered myself. “And from the top now!”
“As I walk through a valley of shadow of death/ I take look at life and (indecipherable) nothing left.”
“AS I WALK THROUGH A VALLEY OF SHADOW OF DEATH”
“I need more from you, altos!”
“I TAKE LOOK AT LIFE AND (INDECIPHERABLE) NOTHING LEFT”
By the end of the trip it was just me and two little girls, sisters they were, hollering out the refrain. We got out of the tractor together, me and the sisters, and they walked away down a gravelly road with their mum and I walked on along the highway.
The sun was setting now over the green fields. It was a sudden tropical sunset – the sun dropped out of the sky like a flaming cannonball, at first the sky was blue and the clouds were pink, then the sky was apricot and the clouds like grey tufts of cotton wool covering it up, then the sky Neapolitan – cream in the west, blue in the middle, apricot in the east and lights came on in the wooden houses, and the trees were no longer green but black shadows full of a thousand noises, and all the clouds lined up at the same height and a crescent moon shone through wisps of cloud in the still-light sky, and finally the sky was blue like ice in the east, violet above me and grey like time in the west, and still glowing right on the horizon. All in the cool still air of tropical dusk. A man jangled by in an old pick-up truck, pulled over to the wrong side of the road, leant out the wrong window, and ushered me in.
He was drunk, I believe. This is my evidence: his eyes were black and red and wide-open but half-asleep, and his breath smelt like beer and there were bottles on the floor. He burped frequently and regally. He jittered and tittered along the road, tacking this way and that, veering to one side of the road, veering back to the other, talking to me sometimes, other times forgetting I was there, sometimes talking to himself, other times forgetting he was there. At first he was bullish and boisterous and told loud jokes and laughed uproariously at them, but as we went further he grew morose and sleepy and clumsy. By the end of the trip, without knowing it, he had relinquished control of the gearstick: he pushed down the clutch when the engine started to whirr, and miraculously the gear changed. Only once did our system fail to work, and then we stalled on the road and I pulled on the handbrake for him as he restarted the old pick-up. He thanked me with his eyes squinted, as though he was starting to have doubts about whether I was real.
We puttered along for 20 minutes in first and second gear, and made almost 10 kilometres of progress(! )before the drunk man pulled off the road. I opened the door and got out. I thanked him for the trip and he nodded at me tiredly, and then he drove up the hill to his house in first gear, the engine squealing and the wheels spinning and the tray rattling and sending up a cloud of dust behind him, and I kept walking along the highway. It was dark now.
A Jeep whizzed by and stopped fifty metres up the road. I ran to catch up with it.
“Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!” said three old German men (once each – three in total; not three times three).
“Hello,” I said.
“Ve go for Savannahket.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Okay! Okay! Okay!” they said. “Bratwurst!”
They were very German. I thought that perhaps they were too German. They were chubby and had little grey whiskers. They spoke like someone trying to imitate Germans and hideously overdoing the accent. They offered me a little pre-dinner sausage. They slapped their bellies when they laughed. The only thing missing was the lederhosen and little feathers in their caps. One of them told me they all owned a hotel in Cambodia together, but they had taken a break for the rainy season and planned to drive to India through Myanmar.
“Watch out,” I warned them, “they don’t like Muslims in Myanmar.”
And they all laughed.
“You Australians,” said the driver, “are so funny people. You are drinking beer too much. In Germany, we three are being called alcoholics. In Australia, we are designated drivers.”
And they all laughed.
“Yes,” I said, “what you have said is true.”
“Have some pre-dinner sausage please,” said the one in the passenger seat. “And you are all swearing like troopers. Fucking this, shit that, cunt that. In Germany we are not swearing so much. Are you knowing why?”
“No,” I said.
“Because,” he said, “sings work.” And they all laughed like they had heard this joke a million times before but it just would never get old.
The third one – the one sitting with me in the backseat – turned to me, smiled, and offered me some Bratwurst. “Gert is not having so good English like us,” said the driver. “Please have some pre-dinner sausage.”
We drove through the night, chatting and laughing and sausaging. After driving an hour, they dropped me in the middle of Savannahket, near the bus station and across from the restaurants and motels and money changers. There was music in the air from a fair down the road.
“We hope sis is okay,” said the driver.
“Yes, we hope sis is okay,” said the passenger.
“Bratwurst,” said Gert in the back seat.
“Yes, it’s fine,” I said, and I put my sweaty backpack back on my sweaty back and walked across to one of the motels. I took a room for the night, showered, ate three dinners at one of the restaurants, read a book, drank some sweet tea, and went down to look at the fair. I slept like a happy tired child, and in the morning I woke up early again, and I carried on north.
Cover by Peter Hershey