Monday, June 24, 2013

Jungle Fever

What a strange night! We come here, to Ban Pako, to celebrate Marie-Do's birthday.

It is rare that we see the country-side during the rainy season since we, like all other falang, are like snow-birds – leaving the drowning ship of Indochina at every monsoon for a summer of rich red wines and old stone cottages in the Métropole. But this summer we are here and climbing the red roads, now somewhat dry from the last rain . We were both subdued and calmed by the radiant greens of the rice fields and the plastered reds of the flooded paddies. Men and women worked in the fields, storing up a mud dam wall here and re-planting stalks of fresh rice into tiny individual pits there.

As they replanted the stalks, the rice shoots - vibrant in their green (greeness? greenitude? greenerosity?), seemed to be shouting out to shaking heaven above and heavy inundated mud below, “I want to live! I want to live!”, and live they will under expert hands.

Ban Pako at night, alone and empty, is still Ban Pako and still resonates with the laughter and probings of times we came here with friends (see Our cabin patio now with just the two of us and mortally top-heavy glasses of Pernod rang out in silence and complicity. The rains were holding up; seemingly held up in the overladen clouds by an invisible hand with fingers tightened, clasped and secure.

Just before the rains came I developed a fever and felt cold. A kind of cold, the kind of cold that cuts through your body and chest and joints as if it were a block of sharp ice, as though it were a powerful breath of air directly from the tomb. Shivering, my teeth clanking, I ran to the car to get some paracetamol and water reserves. One thousand milligrams of that stuff and the sounds of the insects screeching in the leaves.

At last, I thought to myself, at last I have contracted a tropical disease, the dreaded dengue fever. Not as bad as malaria, but still ... I felt as though every strange fruit, rice shoot and exotic insect had somehow incarnated themselves into a ghostly presence come to haunt my every dream. In a way it was a relief, it was the realization of an awkward and perverse ambition: to be invaded and possessed by all that Indochina had to throw at me, to live an experience as feverish and complicated, as full of detail and complex as the overheated mass of a low-land jungle floor. In my fever I was the crawling insect life; the mocking cricket calls; the gnawing of the stubborn termites; the hideous joy of the monkeys; the slithering snake dreams.

When the rains came and stayed they were the muddy bottom and sickening treble notes of this vast feverish colonial nightmare. The gravelly sounds of the low deep ravines, of water, an incessant tic-tac of the pin-point drops; wood flies and scarab beetles run, dash, fly and crawl to shelter. Black ants scurry. Night moths the size of door handles get stuck in my throat.

And all night long the sweats. The activity of the soul. The pain and pleasure of becoming one and indivisible with the red earth in this distant and strange land. In the Lao alphabet there is not one letter that has a straight line. Vowels are sometimes placed before the consonant, sometimes above it, sometimes below it, sometimes after it. The whole thing is rounded, untrappable. There are no hard corners to us to latch on to. And thus my dreams were filled with the round and the evasive, the alluding, the hinted at. My joints vibrated miserably.

Dengue Fever, or Breakbone Fever in Lao is called khay luat aak- ໄຂ້ເລືອດອອກ, the illness of blood going out. At present all of Vientiane is in the grasp of a dengue epidemic. Mahasot Hospital is a beehive of scurrying white-coated doctors, with nurses wheeling patients as dark and thin and weak as rice-paper. In the French community the words are whispered in dread, “une telle a la dengue!” “un tel a la dengue!”. We massage lemon-grass extract into every visible pore of our children's bodies, our ceiling fans turn at full speed, mosquito nets are checked and re-checked for tears and trustworthiness.

We keep ourselves informed, cell phones ring constantly. And here I am as the rain starts to fall in huge gulps, shivering into the dark!

Whatever the rhyme or reason, whatever the cause, the next morning I awoke with the rain still battering the roof of our bungalow and my night-shirt wet with sweat and I jumped from bed in a blossom of perfect health! The angel of death, מלאך מוות, had come, seen the bloody door-post and passed on his way.


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