Things That Money Just Can’t Buy
Or: how I came to learn that smell was a relative thing
I had just come back from the most magical week I ever had. In fact, it was so amazing that even the story I am about to tell couldn’t shake those stars out of my eyes.
Don Det is at Laos’ southern end, in a place called the 4,000 Islands; or in Lao, Si Phan Don. Ah, the wonderful musicality of that foreign name as each word tickles your tongue. It’s enough to make me close my eyes and smell the ever flowing Mekong right beneath me; hear it travel down to Cambodia carrying with it the mysteries of neighboring Vietnam.
Separated only by the thin wooden floor of my little straw hut (almost blown away my second night in a storm that would have caused a complete blackout if it weren’t for the lack of electricity) I could feel that river with me, under me, in me. I bathed in its dark and somewhat muddy waters. I woke up to its hushed roar. I walked along it on the narrow virgin paths of the island.
It’s a tiny island, barely 30 minutes from one end to the other and yet a complete world in itself. Ragged t-shirts that used to be white on tanned Lao children leading the family’s water buffalo to bath in the cool Mekong waters. But they were too busy playing self-invented games with stones and other bits and pieces to notice me. See, that was the beauty of it, one I could not find in Thailand. It was the beauty of children too busy in their own world to even notice me. A warm greeting of “sabadi” was the most attention I could hope of getting, and it’s what made it all so real.
A week on Don Det couldn’t have lasted long enough. Soon it was time to move on and leave that little paradise, one that didn’t really notice when we arrived and wouldn’t know when we left.
The journey to and from Don Det was a festival of vehicles. Buses of various sizes, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and boats, all moved, drove, floated and bumped along the roads, paths and rivers to and from this island.
I decided to make a stop on the way back at the bigger island of Don Khong. A night in a hotel with hot running water and a fan only made me miss my fanless wooden hut, with no running water and too short a mattress.
The next step of the journey was getting from Don Khong to Pakse, the biggest city in south Laos and home of the southern border with Thailand and hordes of little Thai pests selling you anything from everything.
The next day started when the 6am pickup truck taking me from Don Khong to the closest town, Pakse, left at 730am. I got on the almost full truck and squeezed in at the very end, right between a cute and giggly 20-something year old and a huge basket of fish. A few minutes into the ride, I saw an old, wrinkly little woman with twinkling eyes, who was sitting further down putting a fish into a basket. Now where did THAT come from, I wondered, and proceeded to watch her catch another fish – this time I saw that it seemed to be falling from the sky…were the early and already quite hot hours of the morning getting to me? A second glance cleared it up, though, as I saw that they were flying from some container on the roof (now this made SO much more sense!). She was catching them through the opening of the side of the pickup and placing them in the basket at her feet. I was slowly getting used to the strong smell of fish as our loaded little pickup made it’s way through Laos’ southern beauty.
As I was saying my inner goodbyes to Don Det and its beautiful Mekong waters there was no denying that the odor of fresh (I suppose if it’s going to smell like fish, it might as well be fresh, no?!) was getting stronger due to the many fish falling, still alive, from the roof and into the basket in the middle of the pickup. We continued, passing the never-ending, magnificent countryside view, little villages that have yet to have earned map rights appearing and disappearing on the sides of the non-existent road.
The solemn blue skies I had spent hours staring at seemed to be going so fast that the clouds whirled in their midst and suddenly the pickup started slowing down. We went over a small bump and sped up again, the clouds whirling about creating milkshake skies. Only later did my friend, who was lucky enough to be seated in front, tell me that a duck had been crossing the road, and the driver, as if to give it a chance, slowed down, but did not bother to go as far as to steer away from the poor thing (may it rest in peace). We kept going.
The early hours of the morning didn’t prevent the Lao women in the next stop from shoving various meats on sticks in our faces (not a pretty sight when you’re wishing for a coffee). Three men made their way between the meat-on-a-stick sellers and the bags of sticky rice dangling from little girl’s hands, and squeezed into an invisible space in front of me, at the very edge of the truck. I reorganized my limbs accordingly, and noticed the still giggling 20-something year old watching me with much amusement.
As we drove on I suddenly heard a weird sppppcchhhhllllshshsh sound, and immediately turned my head to see what happened. I could see the guy sitting next to me on the edge looking quite alarmed as he lifted up his foot, gazing at it with disgust. His whole foot was brown and his face a pattern of brown dots. I still wasn’t sure what had happened when I wiped a tiny brown spot off my face and realized, suddenly, that the smell of fish, to which I had gotten quite used to, had been taken over by a smell MUCH stronger…could it be possible that we’d…no…I thought, as I sadly realized that, yes, we had run over a huge pile of shit, and I hate to think what would have happened if those three men hadn’t shielded me from the worst…
As a token of my appreciation I immediately took out my very useful baby wipes and handed them out to anyone who needed them, starting with the poor guy who had the stuff all over his face. Needless to say, they were quite thankful, and before long the smell of fish once again overtook the previous one (who said smell wasn’t a relative thing?), and we drove on, the gentle wind in our faces, whizzing past beautiful Lao villages, watching long forgotten childhoods of nakedness and innocence.
I got quite a scare as the truck skidded to a sudden stop, and we all got out, only to find out that one of the tires had exploded. I wasn’t sure what to do, so my falang friends and I took the cue from our fellow locals, who stepped off the truck and seemed to get quite comfortable on the side of the road. The Lao women sitting in a fashionable new way on their high heels, the men sitting in groups, smoking. We figured it was going to be a while. Our truck left to get a new tire and we sat there, amidst a group of Laos, watching as they acted as if the incident was no more than pure routine.
After about half an hour the truck returned. We gratefully got into the fish smelling pickup, and continued on, the wind in our faces, thoughts of upcoming Thailand and home, the bumps on the road lulling us into a peaceful inner mantra. Not even five minutes passed before…
What? Not again?!
Me and the huge basket of fish
Another tire had exploded, or was it the same one? I wasn’t sure which was better. We all knew the drill by now, and proceeded to step out of the truck as if we’d done this at least a few dozen times. Another truck, half the size of ours and going in the opposite direction, stopped, and started unloading its huge load of cabbages, pineapples, and other fruits and veggies. As I sat there (not in my high heels, but I would have if I’d had any) I wondered what they were doing. Since we’re in the middle of nowhere, why would they want to unpack the truck?
I started getting suspicious when I noticed that as the cabbages were coming out, our bags were coming off the first truck. I was starting to get the picture, but thought that because they know that us tourists have to get to the border on time, they are doing us a favor and take us.
I mean, it’s not like there was any chance that all of us would fit into that tiny pickup.
Or was there?
Well, I thought wrong. I watched in amazement as the huge group of people disappeared from the road and onto the roof of the tiny truck. I didn’t know that the Lao were into magic. Within two minutes there was no one standing on the road. And so it was that our driver’s cousin took us to Pakse.
The two hour journey came to an end four and a half hours after it had begun. It was a very long goodbye, one that seemed to suit leaving Don Det. And anyways, what’s a few hours in exchange for adventures that money just can’t buy?