Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Exploring the Suburbs of Vientiane - December 15, 2010

Around Vientiane

It is wintertime. The monsoon has long past and the roads have dried up. Everyone knows the extreme summer heat is on its way, the long dry scorching months when not a drop of rain falls on the country and the Mekong drops like a day with no Prozac.

But now it is the wintertime, the most beautiful months to be alive in Laos. The sun rises every morning without a hint of a cloud in the sky and the temperature only goes up to about 25 in the day. Perfect dry crystal clear days to take the motorbike and explore the outer regions of the city.

Vientiane quickly becomes the countryside. The best maps published in English are called Hobo Maps and even they surrender to the inevitable anarchy of back roads, dirt trails and nameless streets that reigns supreme just three or four kilometers outside the city core.

To quote: Rough dirt roads. Not much shade. A mountain bike is best but regular bikes work too. Most roads look alike and few landmarks. No English signs at all. Enjoy!

Riding outside the city is a challenge. The dirt roads are full of cavities and potholes and you are always looking for ways to navigate between them to spare your back and your shock absorbers.

Anywhere along the way you can stop in any little shop/restaurant/beer garden and have a coffee or a beer. Nobody speaks any English or French or even Vietnamese out here so you are really on your own, just you and your little pocket dictionary!

Rice paddies, temples and the eternal horizontality of the landscape – the ancient alluvial river bed down below and the chain of palm tree crowns up above like so many bad haircuts, their coconuts ripening silently.

Colourscapes: the earth is as red as Babylonia and the route cuts a dry gash through the succulent green that grows everywhere. The shades of it are astounding. This multi-tone is overseen by the benevolent blue of an unwavering sky, like a gentle taskmaster. The houses are wood brown or cement grey, sometimes painted blue or pink.

Smells: there is a flower now in blossom that looks like a virus under a microscope and when it rots it sends out a smell not unlike that of citrus fruit blossoms. Every now and then it hits and sends me reeling back in time and space to the coastal plain of Israel in the spring when by miracle the pioneers’ dream come true every year.

Smells: it is the dry season and the roads have turned to fine dust. Every passing vehicle throws up its own type of dust cloud. To protect their homes against this, people water the path in front of their houses. The combination smell of earth and dust and dryness and fresh water from a plastic hose is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Smells: here in the Worker’s Paradise garbage removal is not free. Residents must pay about 0.50 cents per large plastic bag to have their garbage removed on garbage day. If you can afford it you put your garbage out the day the truck is supposed to arrive. Then you can wait for the marauding dogs to attack it so that if and when the truck does finally arrive there is nothing for them to pick up. Anyways, no one can afford it so instead they just burn their garbage. In the old days before plastic bags, this was only slightly toxic. But now, the air fills with cyanide smoke just about everywhere. And so driving here is also driving through the occasional toxic cloud. It looks really cool from a distance, though!

Sounds: nowadays I am driving the ancient 50 cc Super Cub my wife insisted on buying but cannot drive because at seven months into her pregnancy she is having trouble kick-starting the damn thing. And so I get to play with the faulty gears and non-existent hand break and unrevealing front lamp. It looks really nice, though, the sort of thing you’d imagine in an old Italian movie from the 60’s, Giovanni and Sophia spinning around some ruins in Rome to up-beat light jazz music, she is wearing big round dark glasses (her large straw hat held down by a fine silk scarf) and he is happy. The son of a bitch makes a lot of noise, though and strains the back every time I do not manage to avoid a killer pothole.

Sounds: the Lao are amazingly quiet compared to the Vietnamese, and when they put on their music they don’t put it on very loud. But what they do put is the bass right up full, so that you can’t hear the music: all you can hear is the bass and it rips through you like a dull knife. You might even like the music if you could hear it, but all you get is an annoying deep banging.

In between are the people. Their slowness is legendary. Try getting something done here! This is the only place in the world where I am considered a fast driver! Heat and hammocks.

And this is the winter!

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