Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Into Laos--glorious beginnings. . .and then. . .

Written from Savannakhet, Laos, the 11th of December, 2013.  Weather is hazy bright to clear, cool early and warm by afternoon.  I have a few days to account for.  We re-entered Viet Nam easily near Pleiku and proceeded the next day to Plei Kan, which provides access to a border crossing to both Cambodia and Laos.  We overnighted in Plei Kan, to cross early in the morning and make perhaps as far as Pakse by night, if we got into Laos at all. . .and so the tale begins.  This is how it was:

We were up and around reasonably early on the morning of the 9th, sent a couple of emails and got out of Plei Kan. It's really a pretty sweet little town, that benefits from the fact that the road out of town to the West leads to Cambodia and Laos in short order. I should have gotten a photo of the signpost, a Y in the road about 9 km from town, Cambodia one way and Laos the other. You'll have to do without that though, I was on a mission to get the little horse into Laos, which turned out to be really pretty easy. There wasn't much English around, so I ended up talking to Lao border officials mostly in Vietnamese, with and without help from real Vietnamese waiting in line behind me. The IMPORTANT document though, the temporary import paper for the horse was with a chatty, friendly fellow with pretty impressive English. That didn't help the fact that he wrote the paper up for a car not a bike. . .so the actual customs inspector at the gate sent me back (in Vietnamese) to do it again. Smiling apologies, no extra charges, a 15 minute non event. And that was it. Where was this in 2010 I want to know?

This particular border gate is in a saddle of the range of mountains we'd been climbing up the backside of for the past couple of days. The Lao side is the dramatic one. The scenery is all vertical. The road is nothing but curves and doing nothing but going downhill. I suppose we went back uphill a time or two, but mostly the horse was just snarling and barking with her throttle closed, doing anywhere from 30 to 60 kmh as the curves permitted and the brakes could arrange. It's the sort of road that motorbike enthusiasts write “ride guides” for. .The only traffic besides the two of us (bike and me) was an astonishingly constant stream of semis and big Hyundai freighters (6-axle solid body trucks, 3 steering axles and 3 driving, really impressive) a constant stream, as I was saying, each one loaded far beyond design load with Laotian trees headed to Viet Nam. I've known most of the boatbuilding wood in Viet Nam comes from Laos, but it was amazing to see it en route, along with all the rafters and furniture and really, almost all of the Vietnamese timber needs. The wonderful road (with trucks) went on and on, gorgeous green jungle on steep mountainsides and well engineered curves in a ribbon of nearly perfect paved road, for over 50 km before we bottomed out on the industrialized Laotian plain. What a contrast! Abruptly the land was flat (well, gently rolling hills anyway) shaved to bare earth and planted as far as the eye could see, uphill and down to the horizon in all directions. . .to rubber and palm oil palms. Oh. . .some coffee too I think. But in any event, enormous plantations, huge warehouses, big offices with manicured lawns in the midst of all that plantation, rather like a California winery shining forth among its vines, and blocks of employee housing, rather nicer than migrant housing in California, this is clearly company housing for long term families, but still, ranks and files and all identical except for the laundry on the lines. One plantation, Vietnamese owned, even had its own grammar school, built just like a Vietnamese one.

We rolled right through all that, thinking of the Mekong ahead. Little did we know.

Attapeu is the first town you come to on that route and it's a bit of a surprise. I'd never seen it before, and really, it's just one long string bean along the highway until you come to the fork in the road. Did that sound ominous enough? I can't figure out how to do the desperate situation mood music with this software, so. . .anyway.

We stopped and fed both of us. I had quite nice fried rice and the horse. . .well, she always eats the same stuff. This time I glanced in the tank, and feeling cocky, told the lady with the nozzle we'd take 3 liters. These pumps don't like you to change your mind once the lady has keyed in the amount to dispense, and this time I'd gotten it a little close, so the last little bit went in one drip at a time. So she was really full pulling out of town.

Now back to that ominous fork in the road. . .(bring up the dark music). Wait, I should back track a little. The kilometer markers all morning had been running a steady litany of “. . .Attapeu, Xekong, Pak Xong and Pakse, in that order, as though that were the only way to go. It's a long way around, really three full sides of a big rectangle to get to Pakse. My map showed an equally splendiferous road, 18a, running directly from Attapeu 118 km to Champasak, which is only 45 km from Pakse. There had been no mention in all that way from the mountains, of Champasak (which I was positive was a real place) nor was there any mention of the kilometrage to Pakse other than in that sequence by the northern square route.

Okay, bring up the music now. I got to the fork in the road. One was a nice paved road, the other was a nice. . .unpaved road. The roadsigns were not terribly helpful. The nice paved road gave a destination town that hadn't been mentioned hitherto, and didn't show on my map (this is Laos remember, and my superb Vietnamese road atlas doesn't work here). The other sign. . .well, it was honest, in retrospect. It was a big blue project sign in Lao and English, and without trying to quote it at length, it stated that the road was a Project to “. . .construct National Road 18a, from Attapeu to Champasak, a distance of 118 km.” It gave the contractor's name, nobody I knew, from Italy and Thailand, and then gave the dates. The start date was just recently and completion was to be in 2015 some time. Since my hitherto pretty good 1:1,200,000 scale general map of the whole region 1” equals 18 miles), produced by a reputable Canadian printer and done on waterproof plastic, a faithful long term friend in fact—since that map had been showing 18a as a pretty nice fat red line with big letters for the past several years, I assumed (never assume something like this) that it must have BEEN a road and was simply going to be widened, and maybe a few bridges improved or some such. It didn't dawn on me that National Road 18a, which looked very authoritative on the map, might not have existed before. Perhaps, once, a long time ago, somebody might have cut down a few trees and laid down a little crushed rock along the route marked on the map, but if so, it was many many rainy seasons ago and very little remained of it. But that didn't show up at first. The Italians and Thais had been working a quarry and building a roadbed with some real energy last season. . .for a ways. It was one of those slowly developing traps that pulls you in farther and farther until you realize you're too far from Attapeu to get back by dark and you're running on a goshawful two-rut mud slide occasionally interrupted by a flowing creek (sand bottom or boulders, they're very different problems) or a big mire. Local bikes and tractors had clearly been using the route, their tracks were everywhere, up to a hundred yards up and downstream from the mire or ford, as the case may be. In the mires especially, they had run along the roadway until it disappeared into primeval mud, then they'd begun exploring into the bog on either side, moving the route a tractor width at a time until the ruts got too deep and the mud too slippery or sticky or just too deep. The mires effectively turned into rutted lakes. I got through a number of them unaided, but came at one point to a ford that was too deep for the horse and I had to push and. . .had real trouble standing up on the boulders and running water. Help was shortly on hand and pushed while I steered and the horse soaked up water. Darn. She started back up again and ran well, so, no alternatives having presented themselves, we went back at it. And came to a real mire, not a halfway sort of ill defined thing, this was all but a lake with ruts occasionally surfacing to show there had been land (or something) there at some point in the past. The last bit of dry ground trail (I won't call it a road) was in front of a small house in the middle of some recently cut tiny rice patches, with yams or some such coming up among the rice stubble. An older gentleman stood by the road considering the horse and me, so I asked him if there were a way around this mess. . .gesturing dramatically and looking puzzled, and mentioning Champasak just for luck.

I need to digress again. At every opportunity, especially when confronted with a mire or a ford (one of them HAS to be the last, but it doesn't have to be very soon), I'd consistently asked about Champasak, and one and all, the public had responded by waving me on my way. The public, in this case, consisted almost entirely of very poor, older, red-brown, barefoot people in old red-brown T-shirts and shorts, or red-brown wrap around skirts. In any event, for the moment this was just one more person, seeming very similar to the others I'd met, who was going to wave into the mire and insist it was the way to Champasak. Instead, he informed me you can't get to Champasak. His fairly long speech was probably in Lao, I don't know the sound of it well enough to be sure, but I don't think there are many lowland minority ethnic groups keeping to their own languages. In any event, his gestures and tone of voice made it clear. I'd already figured out I wasn't man enough to go back, and anyway, for the moment, it was thinking seriously about being night. I asked if I could sleep there (amazing how widely accepted the “two hands together with your head laid against it is. . .I've never had it fail). Without knowing about my snoring he nodded and lead me into the “yard”, which was actually the BARNyard. Three pigs were asleep next to a big log while a fourth tried to walk over the top of them. Two hens pecked around leading their flocks of little fluffy chicks (why would you keep hens without chicks I want to know?) from one huddle to the next (while the one livelier pig occasionally made a move on the chick farthest from Mom, which caused an enthusiastic response from Mom I'll tell you. A number of younger chickens scratching around made the place pretty lively. There was a good sized yellow lady dog who didn't think much of me, but only rattled under her breath, didn't really growl.

The horse went under the house and seemed pleased with the arrangement, and there was no chicken poop on the saddle in the morning, so that worked well. The house? Well, quickly stated, it was one of the thousands of small out-in-the-country farm shacks I've ridden by without stopping the past many years. Up on short legs (I bumped my head walking the horse under it), it consisted of one room about 18' x 20', with a lean to added on one side for a kitchen, about 10' square, including the boxed dirt hearth on the plank floor, and another lean to, opening at ground level that was storage for outdoor stuff. The front and side walls were built open above a 32” high side wall, with a corrugated tin roof over the house itself, just clearing your head if you stood behind the wall to look out into the barn yard. Palm leaf thatch (painstakingly sewn palm fronds wrapped around straight sticks to make long panels) and another sort of panel of dark green rounded leaves covered the kitchen. The walls and floors were all of irregular planks, chainsawn from logs as much as a foot wide, but generally a lot less. Single nails top and bottom kept the side walls attached to the wales they were hung from and a lot of the floorboards were loose. A steep ladder gave access to the house itself through a gate at the top that swung on fiber hinges, but it was good enough to keep the dog and the chickens out after dark. The whole thing was put together very crudely, with dreadful carpentry and very interesting engineering.

I was soaked to the waist and sweated through my shirt above. The horse had a crankcase full of oil-water mixture the consistency of mayonaise, but we had a home for the night, could have been a whole lot worse! Dinner developed after a while, one of the younger chickens was invited. It was the freshest chicken I've ever eaten. . .from squawk to pot couldn't have been fifteen minutes, including removal of feathers and unacceptable bits. . .if there were any. The kitchen. . .really interesting to see how much you can do without if you don't have it. . .the kitchen consisted of the small fire in the dirt hearth (on the wood floorboards) with a three legged kettle support made of light rebar straddling the fire. A pair of wide mouth (narrow waisted) cooking pots, a small machete and a chopping block and a big spoon finished the cooking gear, that and a stick or two from the firewood pile now and then. The chicken, no longer commenting, was toasted on the fire held by legs or neck until it was pretty close to cooked and nice and black mostly on the outside. Then it was the work of a few seconds to chop the bird into small pieces and put them on to boil to make a broth and finish off any raw spots. There was salt and a chopped up garlic green in the pot besides the water, and a good dash of fresh black pepper. It made a very passable chicken broth with very lean bits of bony meat here and there. The rest of the meal (and I'd guess most of their meals) was a basket of steamed sticky rice served Lao style. . .dry and really sticky. You dig a handful or enough to make a big golf ball out of the basket with your right hand and roll it into a ball one handed, then dip it into the sauce. Oh. I forgot the sauce. Salt, water, red fiery peppers and something green, smashed hard together. It was way too much heat for me, but the family dipped everything in it heavily. Amazing. This rice was different from any I'd had before, it had perhaps 5% by volume of small black beans added. That should go a ways toward making some complete protein out of all that rice, but probably not quite enough. I should remark on the people's physique perhaps. Dad, perhaps in his mid fifties, was wiry but not painfully thin at all, about my height, grizzled gray hair and no apparent beard. He was clearly very powerful despite the lack of muscle bulk. Mom, younger by ten years I'd think, was just beyond wiry, pretty thin, with no sign of a bosom, but again, surprisingly powerful and agile. The young son, maybe twenty but probably less, was quite muscular, fully my height, with good clear skin (one tattoo) and shiny bright hair. All of them were limber in a way I've never dreamed of, squatting, shifting to a fully seated position on the floor, into nearly full lotus, and back up again without ever touching the floor with a hand. The transition from fully seated or lotus position to squatting to fully erect was amazingly fluid and easy. No popping joints or grunting or any other nonsense. Gracious. I can't do any of that and my attempts are loud with creaking joints. . .and I have to push off the floor or use the “window sill” to help the old legs get me up.

But this is the northern tropics in winter, and daylight is going fast by 5:30. We all went inside before full dark and the three of them fished rolling leaves and plastic bags of tobacco out from under the floor mats (which keep the green leaves flat. Short fat cigarettes with the green wrapper and large flakes of (?) tobacco would last five or ten minutes each, and if they went out (as they often did) they'd be carried behind an ear until the chore in progress was finished. Mostly we sat and watched it getting dark while they talked quietly. They had neither Vietnamese nor English and I had neither Lao nor Lao so I didn't talk. I did manage, by pantomime, to put forward the idea that I needed a tractor truck to get anywhere, ever. Just before full dark Mom went down to the yard and came back with the chicken for dinner, and she and Dad spent the next hour or thereabouts over the cooking. They'd done it before, and it was a well coordinated effort. The young son listened to music on his cell phone, curled up on his sleeping pad. The old lady dog climbed up the ladder and sat in the doorway and didn't smile at me, probably more interested in what was happening to the chicken, and whether or not there'd be any for her. At full dark they turned on the light. I hadn't noticed the solar panel in the front yard, but it's there and a whole cabinet against one wall was devoted to its other pieces. A single compact fluorescent lamp between kitchen and living room provided enough light to be really helpful and didn't smoke.

Dinner was served in shifts. Dad and I started with a bowl of the chicken soup and a bowl of sauce between us, sitting in a very large turned wooden platter-bowl sort of thing, at least 2 feet across. Each of us had a round basket full of the rice and bean mix. There were two tin spoons on the platter and it became obvious the drill was to take spoonfuls of broth to sip with the sticky rice and beans, and now and then to fish a piece of chicken out of the bowl and nibble or pull the meat and skin off. I'd never seen a chicken head eaten properly before. It's a busy operation and there's not a lot left but the skull when you're finished. Fortunately, the chicken only had the one head. I ate a piece of the neck complete with the skin and some of the burnt stubs of feathers, but be honest. . .it tasted fine and went down well. I ate my share of the rice though. As soon as we were finished, we were up and out of the way and Junior and Mom took their turn. They freshened up the bowl of soup from the pot and worked on the same two baskets of rice.

I'd been relishing the idea of sleeping on the floor mat with maybe my sock bag for a pillow and no covers. Not to be. Dad pulled a couple of big plastic bags out of the rafters and shook out a lovely cot-sized mattress pad and pillow for me. So I was down to just sleeping in my wet clothes. He hung up a single mosquito net (Junior's I'm pretty sure, since Junior moved his sleeping pad over against the wall where it could fit under Mom and Dad's net). At least I wouldn't be eaten alive in my wet jeans and shirt, things were really looking up. Then he pulled a fluffy pink bedspread with a frilly ruffle all around out of another bag in the rafters, and my night started to look really good. I mean, considering!

With dinner out of the way we watched Thai soap operas for a full hour with the light turned out and the three of them smoking furiously. I don't know if the system would handle both loads or not, but we actually got a pretty strong signal off the satellite dish and Mom was good at making the amplifier quit squawking so we had quite good sound too. There were no English subtitles, but a brawl is a brawl and a kiss is a kiss and a smirking daughter mouthing off to Mom is pretty easy to understand. At the end of the soap operas we went to bed. That's it, Life in the Country (but consider it without the solar panel. . .no soap opera?? Wow.)

I forgot to mention the bucket of cool water with the tin bowl floating in it. Don't know where it came from but that was for drinking. We shall see.

Night passed, the pigs snuffled now and then, the dog was quiet and the rooster didn't say a thing before 0400. I slept a lot, piddled a lot (out the window to the ground, where the pigs were not sleeping) and worried about ever finding a tractor to take me out of there.  There were two gunshots during the night.  During the day I'd seen two matchlock muskets (very home made) and one AK47, so they hunt a fair bit.

We should discuss tractors. Or “tractor-trucks” or, maybe for brevity I'll suggest “Trucktors”. The basic prime mover is a single cylinder diesel engine from China, the same engine used in most of my smaller Vietnamese fishing boats. They come in different sizes rated in Kilowatts and I don't worry about that. They mostly have a headlight at one end of the engine housing, a fuel tank on top and a water jacket that can boil cheerfully if it wants. Mostly, no radiator. They have a huge cast iron flywheel with a multiple drive pulley bolted to its center. The motor sits in the tractor frame, which, as it arrives from the factory looks like a pair of really long rototiller handles, with a little bit of a gearbox at one end. A minimum of two fat V-belts carry the power from engine to gear box and the output all goes through two axles out the sides of the gearbox. You can put rubber tractor tires on or big steel paddle wheels for working in the rice paddy when it's wet. They'll pull a plow the same size as a water buffalo will, but faster, or a harrow and I've seen a few with monster actual rototillers working behind the paddle wheels. Don't know exactly how the gearing or belting works for that. The ones I've seen have 3 speeds forward and one reverse. The clutch is a simple belt tightener. The wagon is a locally made affair, long wooden A-frame, a couple of chunks of hardwood to carry the axle, the wheels and tires, often old automotive wheels, but sometimes proper wagon wheels that go on and off with a single hub nut. There are no springs anywhere, everything is solid. Besides the long frame members there's always a wooden deck. Sometimes there's a full truck box with seats for six or so per side. Othertimes just a single front wall. The driver sits on a short ledge in front, often with a fertilizer bag full of rice straw for padding. The things are pretty much unstoppable, and will run underwater until their air cleaner goes under. . .if you don't mind the spray from the flywheel and pulleys. There are no guards or fenders. They'll do at least 20, maybe 25 mph on the highway and slower than a walking man up anything they'll stick to. Oh. No brakes. That makes for interesting driving techniques on steep hills. Come to a full stop at the top, put her in first gear and stay out of the throttle. Especially if there's a narrow bridge at the bottom.

Morning brought a new day and the old soup and rice. Actually, a new batch of rice and a batch of some sort of yam-tuber-who knows. Mom and Junior each ate one straight out of the fire but I didn't see them again. Perhaps they were for the stock? Or maybe lunch, which I wasn't around for. The bush telegraph had produced a mechanic to look at the bike, tighten a few things and change the mayonaise. He informed me that a trucktor would be there in four hours, or maybe it was a trucktor would take four hours to take me where I was going, or maybe I got the four hours wrong. In any event, the trucktor turned up an hour later with one young man driving, who promptly loosened up the engine on the frame and changed out the drive belts. The old ones looked pretty sad. That done we had a long discussion, pantomime and sketches and settled on nothing. The young man was a bit grumpy and argued with the mechanic (who had turned up again) briefly. Then we loaded the horse and got rolling. Oh my gosh. That machine plowed through mires dragging its belly and the axle of the trailer. It coated the kid with gray mud (but shortly rinsed him off with clear water when we crossed a ford). We went bushwhacking down trails somebody else had already pioneered, but they hadn't been worrying about an overhanging motorbike's handlebars and mirrors. I was really busy, and saved all of her appendages, but got a few good scratches on head and shoulders. . .some of those bushes are nasty. I did not keep track of how many fords or mires we got through or how many holes we fell into. It was a horrendous ride, but the youngster managed his machine pretty well and we kept on moving. Far too soon though he called it a job done, stopped the rig and proceeded to unlash the bike and raise the price.  H'mm. He, for one, was going no further. The road didn't look too bad and he waved his arm down the road and announced “Champasak!!”. Yeah sure. The horse and I got ready to go, strapped on the luggage and helmet and fired her up. Underway again, thinking we might actually live to fight another day. H'mm. We came to a very long very deep boulder type ford about ten minutes later. Far more than we could ride through, big boulders, nothing you could do with it but roll the bike, two men minimum, preferably three. There were two young men washing bikes on the far side of the ford. I left the horse and waded across. Treacherous footing, strong current, pretty clear water (had to be something good about it). I asked for help. They came. Obviously not thrilled (they'd watched me stumbling across, not impressive), but they came. We pushed her across, lifting her up on to the bigger boulders, keeping her upright when she lurched into deeper holes. It was perhaps 80 or 90 meters long, a football field say, or a little less. A tremendous effort. I offered them a few dollars apiece and they seemed happy enough. The horse and I carried on, through a couple of small mires, over a small ford, and then we came to the best mire to date. No help in sight, no apparent route around, no bushwhacked trail to either side. I picked out a route to try across the middle and put her to it. We got almost halfway across before she suddenly sank another few inches, spun out and gave up. We were well and truly stuck. I didn't need to, she was standing up on her own, but I put down the kickstand and slogged back to firm ground and started walking. Four white knights on a snorting stallion came prancing up the trail, headed toward town. I waved them down and tried to explain my problem.  The language barrier again. . .so I quickly jumped on with them.  We came to the mire. They saw the horse standing there up to her axles. They got back on their trucktor and made to proceed. I asked for help. They looked at each other, and then their driver, clearly the leader of the bunch, nodded his head, took off his flip flops and waded in. One other came with us. The boss climbed in the saddle, I showed him how her clutch worked and started the motor. He gunned it and we two heaved and shoved and she moved ahead. We kept it up for 50 feet or so and then he started to move ahead without us. I ran behind as he got up onto the ridge between ruts I'd been aiming for and kept her moving. I ran along behind in the spray trying to help by holding on and stabilizing the rear end, but I'm not sure how much good I did. He was really agile and skilful and made it to high ground whooping when he slipped and nearly fell (a fall into those ruts would have been really bad). There followed a very brief negotiation. For $12 we two could ride with them as far as they were going, apparently all the way to Champasak, or not, as I liked. No real discussion involved. I paid, they loaded the horse WITH HER LUGGAGE STILL ON, and we went. It was horrendous. There was only a little bushwhacking, a few hundred meters, but horriffic mires the horse and I would never have gotten through and many fords, some of which would have been two-man pushers, not solo performances. In the end we came to a hamlet with a small string of shops, and that was their destination. . .they were picking up the basic components of a tractor. We weren't in Champasak, or even close as it turned out, but they were golden, there were no more mires, one small ford, a great many ugly little two-tread bridges (I shiver) but it was easy going by comparison. The horse stepped out onto asphalt about an hour later. There was a truck wash directly across the highway. She got really clean all over, got her oil changed again (it was still pretty foamy, but not mayonaise) and we rode into Pakse like a muddy, bloody tramp riding a fine horse. Funny, but that's the priority.
Goodbye to Viet Nam, the construction zone in no man's land.  At least SOMEBODY is making it passable!

Mountain Jungle, waterfalls (not very many, it's been dry a while. . .

An absolute solid string of semis and heavy freighters loaded to the max with tropical hardwoods.  Oh dear.  

Just a pretty creek.  It must run hard to scour the rocks like that, but not now.

And then the lowlands.  Miles and miles scalped and planted to stuff you can sell.  Well?  No elephants or tigers here!

Here's a mire we got through early on and I thought I'd best take a photo, wouldn't be such a great example again soon, I said to myself.

We got through that one too. . .

Waiting for a trucktor.  Mom and Dad and Mom's Mom I think. . .company anyway.

But this one was the end. . .not too bad for a little ways, but look on across the "lake". . .oh.
That would be the horse having a look at her trucktor. . .first leg of the recovery, changing belts,.

The nice end of the last ford, we stopped to rinse the tructor off so it wouldn't be embarassing when we got to town.

Safe on dry ground, with only one small ford left ahead.  Not that we knew that, but it turned out to be the case.

Loading pieces of new tractor on the trucktor. . .and so we parted company.