by Tom Czaban
I was hoping to meet some like-minded tourists on my foray into the Laos countryside, but I am the only one who has signed up for the trek. My guide is Leng, a student, who swiftly admits that the only reason he does this job is to practice English with foreigners. With the air so hot it burns the nostrils, we bounce over a bamboo bridge and up a steep verge towards rocky green hills. Then we stop at a few palm shacks, “These people are Hmong,” Leng tells me, “In Laos there are three types of people: Hmong, Khmu and Lao. The Hmong came down from the South of China and settled here in the mountains, they were forced from their homeland about one thousand years ago.”
At the nearest hut, a woman sits cross-legged on the floor, weaving a mat. Leng nods to her, then barges into her home. The house isn’t much – bamboo beds, hole-drenched mosquito nets, and a dead camp-fire on the stone floor. On a raised shelf there is an ancestral shrine made from flimsy cardboard and decorated with tissue paper. A woman sits on the floor, apparently only semi-aware of our presence, “You see this woman?” Says Leng.
“She is not strong.”
“Because she smokes too much opium.”
After this, we zig-zag a foot-path towards the hills. The farmers have slashed and burned the forest to prime the land for farming, so the fields are full of decimated silver teak trees – it is a depressing, ashen, broken land – a teak cemetery.
As the terrain drives upwards, my T-shirt clings to my sticky body and there is so much sweat in my eyes that I can barely see, so I stumble, squint and trample through the fuzzy hillscape. Leng prefers to walk fast, already many meters ahead of me he shouts: “If we pick up the pace we can be back in a few hours.” To him it is a race, he seems to have forgotten that I have paid for this: I can’t believe I have either.
I am not wearing hiking boots, I am wearing flip-flops. They slip off during descents and when we climb, the thong slices my toes. We pass just one person on the first two-hour stretch; he walks with a spring, has a giant wicker basket strapped to his back, and fills it with herbs, like some sort of forest fairy.
Then we stop at a felled log for lunch. Three children pass us; the first carries a tree over his shoulder, the next, a wicker cage containing a chicken, and the third, a stick with a termites nest hanging from it to feed the chickens with. The break doesn’t last long and we are soon scrambling up a mountain. Leng rips off a huge branch and uses it as an umbrella. Then he quizzes me about the English language. I don’t want to teach English, I don’t want to die. My mind fills with potential tabloid headlines, most are variations of: “Flip FLOP! English Idiot Dies on Trek.”
When we trudge into a village I collapse onto a bench. There are more goats here than people and a sign knocked up on a branch-stand says: Welcome to Happy Village. I feel sick.
Leng returns from a shack carrying two warm beers. He has spent his own money on it so it would be impolite to refuse. My stomach bloated with warm alcohol, the trek continues.
“We’ve got to keep moving!” Leng barks from about fifty meters ahead, “We’ve got to swim in the river!” At that moment the inevitable happens. My baked brain, alcohol stomach and tired limbs combine to make a terrible error. My flip-flops fly into a bush as I slip down a steep hill, first on my feet and then on my knees. Stopping just short of a rocky verge, I peer over the edge – had I tumbled over this I would have been in free-fall for a very long time.
Leng dashes back up the hill, “Sorry! Sorry!” He shouts, as he gathers leaves then plasters them over my feet and legs in an attempt to stop the gushing blood.
“It’s not your fault,” I tell him, picking myself up and staggering down the rest of the hill, with my legs still shivering from the fall.
At the foot of the hill, two tourists greet me. They wear long sleeved shirts, trousers and caps – I enviously study their hiking boots.
“What were you looking at up there?” The plumper one asks, in what I think is a German accent.
“I wasn’t looking at anything, I fell down the hill.”
The tourists follow my gaze to my muddy feet that are sprayed with deep red blood. “I’m wearing the wrong shoes,” I confirm.
“You’re walking like a native.”
“I’m walking like an idiot.”
One nods and lifts his cap to mop his brow with the back of his hand.
“It’s beautiful here eh?” I tell them, not wanting to complain – not wanting to seem ungrateful.
“Yes,” replies the smaller one, “But it’s far too hot, it’s the wrong time of day for this!” Leng looks at me, as if to say: “err…come on…we need to get to the river!”
So we leave the Germans behind, and for some reason, the fact that I know they too are struggling makes me feel much better.
When the river finally appears, Leng strides down the rocky path and dives in.
“You’re not swimming?” he asks, as I throw myself onto a hot rock and pitifully cough up air.
“You need to wash cuts.”
“Ok, I guess you’re right.”
Leng is already splashing away in the middle of the river, as I step through the shallow plains. Then, all of a sudden, my leading leg disappears off the stone ledge – without warning the river has gone from shallow to very, very deep. Because I wasn’t expecting it, my trailing leg doesn’t immediately follow, instead it remains lodged between two wet rocks. As I crash into the water, the weight of the rest of my body wrenches my captive foot free. Have I just broken my ankle? I don’t have time to find out – the current is washing me downstream. When I kick-back towards the bank, it doesn’t matter how fast I stroke, I am dragged further and further away from safety. The tabloid headlines return, this time with opening paragraphs: “Flip-FLAP! English idiot drowns in river. The autopsy revealed that the explorer must have fallen over at least once before he even reached the river…”
I maneuver myself to the bank, and clinging to a thick black cable, haul myself out of the water, pathetically dragging my left ankle behind me.
Back on dry-land, blood pours from a deep cut on my ankle-bone. I throw myself back onto the rock, panting for breath. Leng stops flapping in the water when he sees the blood spewing from my leg, “Sorry! Sorry!” He frets.
“It’s not your fault.”
Safely back in the van, with my ruined leg raised on the seat-head in front, I nod sagely to myself, “Mankind can be malevolent, but Nature is dangerous.”
All photos by the author
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Tom Czaban has worked as a reporter in both England and West Africa. Having majored in Screenwriting at University, he is currently writing a TV pilot that will hopefully be shot in the summer of ‘09.Â He loves to travel/escape and last year spent five months traveling overland from England to Thailand. What did he learn? Even buses are expensive when you catch a lot of them…