Thursday, October 28, 2010

October Break - The Redolent Road - October 29th, 2010

(It’s October break at the French School. We have taken the weekend and rented a car to drive up to Vang Vieng. Here are some impressions of the route)

The Redolent Road

The road, as Mister Bilbo said, goes on and on.

We drove, happy as doves, north into the never-ending lushness of Route Thirteen. As we drove north and away from the capital the air got, if not thinner, then at least cleaner. It became perfumed with the essence of a thousand fruits, as sweet as wine and as pure as honey.

Trees grew taller and people grew shorter. We were entering the hinterland of the H’Mong and other minorities.

In the matter of a few hours we were facing the dramatic inland cliffs of the Asian heartland; towering giants overgrown with vegetation as thick as a beard in a land where memory never sleeps.

The calm cool quiet of rural Laos was upon us as we were upon her. For thousands upon thousands of years this people has tamed its bamboo, built its huts, lit and extinguished its cooking fires. They live above ground, their houses on stilts the better to protect themselves from the beasts that crawl, that would disturb their sleep and eat into their provisions.

The people live in small villages like the one we walked along to get to a cave where the silence dwells.

There is a canal. There are ducks and livestock and in the distance the hills.

We walk through and I think of our lives. How different we all are on this slender planet! And how tempting it is for us Westerners to look upon their tired work-worn faces and think, “How lucky am I”. For are we lucky? Am I lucky?

I have the West and its wealth and air-conditioned greatness. I have cinemas and individuality and languages and independence. But am I lucky? Luckier than they?

Walking here with these people I get the impression that they, who have never seen the inside of an international airport, have conquered distance in a way I never could.

October Break - An Afternoon Benediction - October 29th, 2010

(October break at the French School. We all went north in a rented car. Here are some notes from the trip…)

An Afternoon Benediction

Outside of Vang Vieng, just north of it, is a little temple, unvisited by tourists.

There was nothing special about it but I had a deep need to visit a temple and so we opened the gates and went inside.

Zéphyr, the alte Yid, decided to stay in the car. We got our bracha and went on our way

October Break - Buddhas in the Grove - October 29th, 2010

Buddhas in the Grove

(October break in the French school. Marie-Do, Camille, the children and I went away for the weekend. We rented a car and drove up to Vang Vieng. Here are some impressions from our road)

A short and enchanted walk from our hotel in Ban Houey Than on the way took us to the archeological site of Vang Xang.

For information about this and other archeological sites near Vientiane I highly recommend a wonderful book, Promenade Achéologique Dans Les Environs De Vientiane, published here by Monument Books, ISBN 978-974-7660-66-1

These Buddhas were carved out of the rock in the 15th Century. The hand position most common in the group; one hand raised and index and thumb joined, is called argumentative Buddha.

Even in his argumentative state, Buddha seems awfully calm to me. Of course, they were well nourished, with plenty of mineral water and Red Bull to drink.

I say that the walk to the opening in the woods was enchanted because (not for the first time…) I felt a strong presence in the forest. Every bamboo grove and strip of banana trees, each path and boulder seemed alive with something so pluralistic and whimsical that it is totally outside the realm of my Hebraic monotheistic frame of reference.

Our severe sand-storm of a desert God is nearly swept away by the billions of bamboo leave slivers and multi-coloured butterflies, dragon-flies and something else that looks like the menacing armed forces from another – much smaller, planet.

Red ants, toads, slithering things abound and rustle. Movement is so omnipresent I wonder how Buddha got it into his mind to meditate.

After we got to the Buddhas, we were joined by a family, a monk and a nun who gracefully invited us to join them for their blessing. We sat there as candles were lit, hands were joined and foreheads were touched to the mat.

We left before it finished, though. We westerners are an impetuous lot, unhappy without our continual movement and need for change.

October Break - Bo Pin Yan - October 29th, 2010

(Late October, the Ecole Hoffet went on break. I took a few days off work and we rented a car and drove with Camille up to Vang Vieng. Here are some impressions from the road…)

The Ultimate Bo Pin Yan Experience.

North of Vientiane but still far south of Vang Vieng on the mythical Route 13, built by the French during their glorious colonial enterprise and not maintained since, there is a lake called Ang Nam Ngum.

An artificial lake. In the early 70’s, before the Wondrous Revolution a damn was built and rivers were diverted and a huge hydro-electric battery was built. The newly born Communist Government used the newly formed islands in the middle of the lake, ex-mountains, as prisons. So they say. We were not able to visit any of them.

Our first stop was downstream of the lake. Funny, I thought, this looks just like a river. But we stayed the night in a resort with wonderful rooms and a swimming pool. The children dove into the water, singing their new mantra: This Is The Life!

And indeed it is.

That night we looked for a restaurant and we had the choice of a few floating restaurants with coloured lights and powerful sound systems, which proved once again my civic adage that I.Q. tests should be administered to people before they are allowed to have electricity.

We finally ate at the night market, which is nothing like the night markets in Thailand. A few tables covered with dirty plastic paper, old pots filled with stews so spicy you could light a cigarette on them; chickens and another unidentified bird over red-hot embers. Smoked pork, sticky rice. Insects the size of small cars flew around us and sometimes at us (At another restaurant, the owner grabbed a fat grasshopper and tore its head off and popped it in the deep freezer for later consumption.). I bought a large bottle of beer from across the street and we had our dinner. As usual, we bathed in the warmth and delight of the joyous Lao people.

The next day we finally made it to the lake. The banks of the lake used to be the mountain tops of a sprawling valley. Roads cut through cliff breaks where only trees once grew. An entire city of restaurants and workers’ huts has mushroomed in the erstwhile wilderness.

Getting a boat and being on it were the ultimate Bo Pin Yan experience. We went to the embarcadero where you can rent boats. In any other country in Asia you would be accosted by boatmen trying to sell you a tour. But here, the captains just sat around looking at us. We were sure we were in the wrong place! We had to ask to get a boat. Their lack of pressure was all the more strange considering the prices of the cruises – 300,000 kip for two hours!

The boat itself was a piece of work. It was older than the Bible, and the ‘captain’ fired up the ancient diesel engine by making contact and a threatening spark manually. Then he sat at the wheel in an old chair. He sat there. He just sat there.

I looked out the side of the boat and realized that after ten minutes that the boat simply had not moved. We had paid 300,000 kip to sit in a non-moving, heavily vibrating vessel for two hours!

I went to see James Tiberius Kirk and he pointed to a Soviet-style structure in the water in the distance and used his only two words in English: very good!

Yes. Very good. But very far. Very very far. After a while I saw that the boat was indeed moving, but only at about the speed I would normally walk. When I asked him to go faster, using body language, he would just look at me and smile: “very good!”

We understood each other perfectly.

We finally made it to the swimming structure. Only Russians could have built such a thing and made it so ugly. The other hour was just going around the lake, slowly. The only interesting thing was a missile on a beach, but it wasn’t our guide who pointed it out to us.

It was the ultimate exercise in accepting that which we could not change. Ten minutes before we got to port, the son-of-a-bitch finally put his foot down to the floor and the boat picked up speed.

But I am not a good Lao. I screamed at him to slow the damned thing down. If you’re going to be slow, be slow: Bo Pin Yan!