There are many things to love about living here, in Laos. Your entire being can sing rhapsodic over the country roads and the ancient temples, the fine smiles on the faces of incredibly honest people. I have often delighted in the full view of fruits in a market or a mountain range at my feet. One of the lesser sung delights of life here are the airlines.
If you can survive them, flying around is wonderful.
Getting information is a joy in itself. First of all, you never know which airlines flies to which destination and what the name of that destination is. Looking for flights to the Sam Neua airfield was easier once I had figured out that the tiny airport was called HuaPhan, after the province. The same holds true if you wish to fly to Phonsavan, which everybody calls Xiangkhoang.
Then, there was the discovery of an airlines no one had ever told me about, Lao Sky. I went on line to book my flight, but on-line payment was impossible. Just click on the 'Pay Now' icon to watch your Visa card information dissappear into cyber for an indefinite period of time. Luckily there is a cancel button. No travel agencies in town deal with them. On their web-site is a number to call, which I did; and here the true miracle began.
A woman speaking very good English answered, she took my information and within seconds we were making arrangements on WhatsApp. Payment was simple with my BCEL debit card, although they got my name wrong on the ticket and made the ticket out to one Miteklhel Syijimnn, clearly a Serbo-Croatian refugee of undetermined status.
The true miracle of living here is the people. I had no idea just how small the plane was and arriving with Charlene at the airport I was met with the fatal, 'bo dai' (cannot) so familiar to ex-pats. But smile, just smile at the Lao, and watch those doors open up. When I showed them that the back wheel could be taken off they found a large clear plastic sheet in which to wrap her and the deed was done.
Another miracle of the Lao is how they deal with regulations. Baggage allowance was 15 kg, with a tiny carry-on. Charlene is 12 kg without the racks, but my saddle bags weighed a tragic ton, so when they asked me to weigh them I just smiled and said, 'no problem, carry on'. OK, no problem. Big smiles all around. Carry on. Try bending those rules anywhere else!
The airplane was small. Tiny. Was it an airplane or a flying scooter? No overhead compartment. No overhead anything. No toilet even, so if you're flying on Lao Sky, I suggest you piss before you board.
Let's talk about both flights, there and back. I had left the clear plastic sheet at the airport in Sam Neua for my return flight and it was waiting for me. It wasn't even sure I could get a flight back because it had been foggy the day before and in case of fog the plane cannot arrive from Vientiane. Seems someone had neglected to put lights on the sides of the runway. So, no flights in fog, no flights at night ... if there is a real problem in Sam Neua you may be up shits creek with narry a paddle.
The morning of my flight back I received a message on WhatsApp confirming they would fly that day. The flight back was rough. Turbulance in a big bird is bad enough with your Bloody Mary firmly in your hand and a stewardess smiling reassuringly but up there in a flying contraption made of rice paper you can really measure that plunging into that green expanse of mountain would not be a friendly experience.
We entered a cloud bank over the centre of the country and the pilots started playing frantically with their GPS and weather systems until they finally gave up. The co-pilot said something to the pilot and pointed to his left. 'Fuck it, turn that way', was probably the gist of it. He turned left and I lived to tell the tale.
A bit of philosophy. A friend asked if I had prayed and I answered that I saw no point in troubling God with my petty problems. She asked, 'I thought that was what God was for?' I really gave this a lot of thought, up there. After all, the hand of God could just as easily have tipped the wing of that aircraft and sent us all plunging to our earthly deaths. I told my friend that trees are for giving shade, meaning that the function of trees is to exist – their shade giving is a fortunate by-product of that existence, nothing else. These thoughts were really on my mind as the little craft bounced and tossed upon the clouds up there. For a while I thought I was really going to die, but even then I refused to pray. What is the point of insulting the millions of true believers who went to their deaths as martyrs with a useless prayer on their lips? I much prefer the image of the Chassidic court in Poland that went, on masse, dancing into the gas chambers since their belief system had convinced them that resistance was futile. What is the point of inulting a deity who, if It had the time, should be busy curing bone cancer in children or stopping the civil war in Syria? My thoughts turn to a recent thing going around Facebook: a little boy in Syria whose dying tortured words were, "I'm going to tell God everything". His accusation and threat were more than poignant – he was going to tattle on all those fanatics and tell God what the real scoop was. His anger and indignation left a lasting impression on me. What is my prayer, then, in the shadow of his young despair?
Instead, I decided to enjoy the ride and – if possible – enjoy my death. What the hell, I thought, do I have to gain by not enjoying my death? It's the only death I'm going to have: I might as well go for it.