Monday, April 13, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #2: Hitting the Road

Cowboys, Indians and Native Americans,

Before I launch into the update, I want to first send a massive hug-shaped congrats to my brother Sam and his wonderful wife Bridget on the birth of their beautiful baby girl Lua. Simply amazing... Since last writing there’s been a lot, nearly all of it related to Pencils of Promise though so I’ll do my best to provide you with a comfy passenger seat on the ride that's now led me to Pakse in Southern Laos.

In the days following the first update, each morning I rode my motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen about an hour to Pha Teung heading for the Gates of Eden. The workers seemed to almost get a kick out of the assistance of a “falong” (the regular term for foreigner), but getting to know the kids personally was what drove me out there each day. By Week 2, when I’d arrive in the village most of the parents and kids would greet me with a large “Saibadee AB!” (they struggle with pronouncing “Adam” and nearly everyone has an easy nickname, so they like calling me by my initials, “AB”). I also discovered a hidden bamboo hut about 30m from a small riverfront beach on a secret dirt path 2km past the village, so some days I’d stop there to relax, eat, read, meditate, go for a swim, and generally enjoy the amazing sense of peace found when completely alone in a remote but beautiful, natural environment.

There are many tales from Pha Teung that can be shared, but the one that had the most personal significance happened on my last day there. When I first visited in December and found several children doing work on a Sunday in a classroom by themselves, one girl absolutely froze my senses. She wasn’t the youngest, the cutest or the prettiest, but I later realized that it was simply how normal she seemed that made her stand out. Her clothes were plain but not dirty or ripped like the others, and she reminded me of any girl I might have sat next to in primary school growing up… only she was living in a starkly different setting. There was just something about her. She radiated the unspoken latent potential of her fingertips. Her paralyzing stare carried no sharp objects. This one girl’s expression alone made me want to build in Pha Teung… But since being out here she won’t engage me whatsoever. Other children laugh, shake hands, exchange names, play games, etc. I’ve tried over and over to speak with her, just to get a name, but she always shyly walks away without a word or even eye contact.

On my last full day in Pha Teung I finished up by going for yet another long swim in the river with the kids. When I came out they walked with me back up to the village to rinse the mud off our feet. For some reason, that one girl curiously watched and stuck around. I asked the names of all the younger kids around her, and finally when I got to her, with creased corners of expressive delight she shouted “Thanh”. Yes. Finally. We talked a bit more in my broken Lao, and before leaving I reached into my bag to grab my favorite writing pen, and gave it to her. Her face was a blank slate as I handed it to her, simply staring into my eyes and accepting the gift devoid of emotion. As I walked out of the village though, I looked back to see a large crowd of kids surrounding her and examining the writing utensil. Moments later she skipped away, singing while admiring the pen she now held high in the air… It’s hard to put into any words, but that simple image validated and encompassed everything that I’d ever hoped Pencils of Promise would become… It felt like a circle had been completed, and that all of the time spent in the village was well worth every second.

Sadly my motorbike finally died that day, so I was forced to hitchhike to get back to Luang Prabang after the high of that final experience. In many ways it almost seemed fitting, as I drained that bike of everything it had to give... The next morning was occupied by a two-hour ride south with TC and three Education Ministry officials through lush mountainous plateaus to visit a small village called KiewTaloum II that’s in need of a preschool, and will possibly be the location of the second PoP school. The morning after that, the real backpacking began.

It started by meeting with a Lao engineer named Somlat who beamed a devilish smile and said, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name”. He does all of the building for an organization called Community Learning International that wants to partner together, so the two of us hired a tuk-tuk and hit the road heading north…

Along the 6-hour journey we stopped to visit the CLI library in Pak Ou, the PoP site at Pha Teung, the CLI dormitory at the district’s lone high school in Nam Bak, and an incredibly remote village called Pha Yong that’s in desperate need of a primary and preschool. The hour-long road to Pha Yong is made of dirt and rocks carving a snake-like ascent through a countryside of astounding beauty. Sprawling rice fields seem to sway in green unison to wind songs that only farmers hear. At times we had to get out to help push the tuk-tuk up steep hills, but the ride was definitely my favorite from all of my time in SE Asia thus far. The village itself was extremely poor, and most kids walked two-hour each way to get to the nearest primary school. Somlat and I used sticks to carve out a basic three-room school diagram in the dirt, which just may become a reality before year's end. It was inspiring and beautiful and badass... once again, everything that I hope PoP will become one day.

We then arrived exhausted in the sleepy village of Nong Kiaw, and arose early the next morning to take a speed boat up the Nam Ou to a tiny village called Hoay Hoay. A monsoon-like rain exploded from the sky upon our arrival, and as we trekked through the mud to visit the Hoay Hoay primary school, the village children laughed hysterically beneath their bamboo huts, holding handfuls of rain tempting us to defy them… But I didn’t have to think twice, it was all right.

A second night was also spent solo in Nong Kiaw, relishing a lightning storm of epic proportions, and the next morning I hopped on a slow boat headed upriver towards the idyllic village of Muang Ngoi… Ahhh Muang Ngoi. I love this place. I really, really love it. It’s a hidden paradise with a patchwork of $5 per night waterfront bamboo bungalows and the ghosts of ‘lectricity howl through the village bones for only three hours each day. Two afternoons were spent in a hammock there, watching the sun arch towards its resting place and absorbing as usual the words of the greatest writer to ever live, Robert Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota. It was also the first time I’ve had any consistent interaction with Westerners since arriving in Laos, so it was really nice to hear the tales of fellow backpackers. One guy was headed to the Tibetan plateaus after four months of learning to now speak semi-fluent Thai, two Canadian’s had just returned from three weeks of trekking in Nepal, and the couple next door was an Israeli guy and Guatemalan girl that met while spending eight months traveling India… this patchwork of jelly-faced personalities and a few others made for some great conversations and late-evening jam sessions.

After an assortment of boat and tuk-tuk rides I returned for a night to Luang Prabang and will now be traveling Southern Laos for 11 days where internet is even more rare than heated showers. The final story I’d like to share occurred one afternoon in Pha Teung while playing with the kids during their lunch recess-

They suddenly started shouting a word I didn’t recognize and pointing to the sky. I didn’t see it, but I heard a sound that I immediately recognized. As it got progressively louder, a child tugged on my shirt and guided my eyes towards the black object approaching from above. My entire body tightened. A large helicopter rapidly approached as my heart elevated in beats and decibels. The children jumped and waved all around, shouting laughter towards the sky. Many looked at me with approval-seeking giggles, ostensibly asking “Isn’t that amazing to you too!?” Of course they had never watched footage of the Vietnam War, seen the infamous picture of the Vietnamese girl after a napalm raid, played modern aerial videogames, or viewed the many Youtube clips taken from assault vehicles during battle. But that's what I pictured, those were my only "helicopter flying over Indochina" images...

I looked back up, and when I looked down again one child was sternly shaking his head. After a second I realized he was impersonating the expression I must have been inadvertently making while watching the helicopter pass several hundred meters above. The entire event was a shocking and completely unexpected experience. I had to sit down after to absorb it all- that feeling of absolute vulnerability and helplessness, compounded in its effect when juxtaposed with the excited kids jumping all around… To them this was a marvel of magic and futuristic technology, but to me it potentially spelled the end and there was nothing any of us on the ground could do about it.

One of the main reasons I travel is for these rare moments when something completely irregular and simultaneously unforgettable occurs that alters or solidifies your view on something. For the first time in my life, I felt the panic and indefensible fear that civilians in warzones must feel during an aerial attack. Fortunately, the one person I know in the armed forces is naturally equipped with the deepest morale character and courage out of anyone I’ve ever met, so I’m hopeful that our weapons of war are in the hands of other individuals with similar merits. But that afternoon made me wonder… How differently would we feel about acts of war and civilian destruction if they were rarely seen from the above or from miles away as we see usually them now? How much more reluctant would we be to engage in these acts if they were consistently shown from the civilian perspective on the ground? My beliefs were certainly pro-pacifism before, I just now wish I could have put the war hawks next to me that afternoon, standing in a schoolyard with waving and jumping children all around... begging for a helicopter’s attention…

I hate to end on a somber note, I just felt the need to share that last story since it was such a powerful experience. To lift the mood before ending this sucker, my last night in Muang Ngoi everyone was sharing traveling tales from their trips. This one Austrian lifelong traveler then went on and on about these incredible mangrove monkeys. He talked for 10 minutes about their ability to make dives into muddy waters in search of fish and keep their eyes open the whole time... It was a hysterical story, and he talked with tremendous fervor about how great these monkeys are. He finally finished his diatribe, and another person jumped in. Before they got too far, I asked him "Oh by the way, where exactly did you see these monkeys? Maybe I can check it out on my trip..." His response was, "Oh... me? I saw them on television. Discovery Channel man!"

Two minutes in heaven is much better than one minute in heaven,

Key Trip Info
Days – 21
Album of Choice – “Consoler of the Lonely” by The Raconteurs. One of the best pure rock albums in years. Book-ended by its two finest tracks (“Consoler of the Lonely” and “Carolina Drama”), also give “Top Yourself” a listen if you ever have post-breakup angst. This one enters the Dylan pantheon (“Positively 4th Street”, “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, “Dirge, “Just Like a Woman”, etc.) of songs that absolutely destroys a former love. Wicked stuff but real raw.
Song of Choice – “Mr. Soul” by Neil Young. It’s a kaleidoscope of lyrical delight, best heard acoustic and without distractions.

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