That night ended a lightning storm right over Ban Pakkem accompanied by rain of deluvian proportions.
Someone in the nai ban's house was snoring monumentally at about 23:00, and rather than go squeeze his nose or make noises like Louis Funèse in "La Grande Vadrouille", I put in my industrial strength Canadian Shoppers Drug Mart ear plugs and went back to sleep.
Sleep. A sleep as sweet as death, this slumber was a never-ending descent into a timeless restfullness; a heavenly repose, a lithe and supple dream time perfumed by only sweet memories. I had opened the window of my room on the stuffy top floor and the cool star-filled breeze was collecting itself in patterns of joy all above and throughout the mosquito net provided for me by my hosts.
I could feel my thigh muscles relaxing, almost breathing like lungs.
At about 5:00 a thick and deaf rumbling began to pound its way through the ear plugs, as though a thousand drummers on a distant hilltop were trying to breach the distance and establish contact with the village. I opened my eyes in the dazed nether-light of my forgotten dream and it occurred to me to take out my ear plugs.
When I did, the truth of the situation hit me. A rain, a big one.
Just to place this in its correct and entire context: this was to be my last cycling trip on the back roads before the monsoon hits and turns the entire country into a river of mud. I have another big trip planned for May on an asphalt road out of Oudomxay, but this was meant to be my last gasp into the heartland of Laos while I could still pedal before the ຂີ້ຝຸ່ນ (dust) turned into ຂີ້ຕົມ (mud).
And now it was raining. And not just raining! The tin roof of the house was like a sound box, exaggerating every single sound, every one of the millions of droplets until the depths of despair. Lightening, followed in rapid succession by thunder, first cut the air and then propulsed it. The building actually moved. The storm was right above our heads.
I got up to look out the window, visions of my head struck by lightening never far from my imagination, and there saw the entire village and valley beyond beset by the staccato blinking of the Universal Eye.
Out there, to the right, there seemed to be a mountain. The base of it was lit from the interior, as though it were built of a florescent transmitting rock. It was only later that I realized that I was looking at the crown of the Buddha tree growing in the back of the Vat garden I had visited that very night.
Indeed, that night after dinner and after darkness had descended over all the land I walked down the path to the Vat and wondered through the grounds shining my flashlight on the temple frescoes:
A woman took an arrow shot into her flank by a monkey-monster;
People crossing a river carry a musical instrument;
A pair of masks in horrifying and morbid black and white;
Buddha is being born – gods are smiling, and Krishna is too. A heavenly woman showers the baby with flower petals: the Universe, at peace, is finally facing redemption.
But now in the total darkness punctuated only by lightning throngs the Vat was black invisible and the tree looked like a mountain lit from within.
As much as I loved the sound and smell of the rain and the deep throat-filled rumbling of the thunder, I stood there cursing my luck. I turned my flashlight outside to get a view of the village and the rooftops but the beam was halted within a meter or two by a wall of heavy drops.
Even if the rain stops immediately, I thought, it will take hours for the sun to dry the mud. But the rain did not stop immediately at all. It carried on with a vengeance well until 8:00. It carried on while the children walked to school in their uniforms: white shirts for all, black trousers for the boys and a dark sin with silver trim for the girls. It carried on while the village dogs sat with their ears held back. It carried on while the roosters crowed to the invisible fleeting sun.
The sun cleared the slogging earth just enough to let it compact under the early morning load of trucks and public transport. It was neither ຂີ້ຕົມ nor ຂີ້ຝຸ່ນ, and the air smelt as though it had been pulverized with a fine mist composed of mountain honey and citrus flowers. All along the path the immediate vegetation was pristine and collected as if the evening’s storm had forced it to control its contrasts, paradoxes and get a hold on itself.
Rain laden leaves, thick with slated thirst, flittered in the wind. I could almost hear their untroubled voices this morning calling victory and vigour against the cruel fate that had littered the sides of the road with other, less fortunate debris.
The distant hills still stood hidden and alone, as if lost in thought, meditating on the futility of expectation.
I myself was reminded of a beautiful contradiction in which I found myself just the night before when I went for my constitutional around the temple grounds: I had come across a fresco of the Buddha locked in a state of meditation, protected by the seven-headed cobra which symbolizes to my mind the serendipity brought by nature when all is going well. He sat there, the Great Man, with his eyes partly closed and all the Universe serendipiting to help him out of the jam of existence and longing. On his countenance he wore the kind of satisfied smile that quite frankly infuriates everybody.
I found myself in the following paradox: I saw for the first time that the real peace proposed by Buddha was liberation from desire and its evil twin brother, envy. At the same time I found myself desiring to be in that state and envying anyone who was in that state. The envy, the jealousy I felt in my heart was so great that I think that if Buddha would have rolled up to me then and there I probably would have smacked him out of sheer annoyance!
How dare he be free of envy while I am stuck in the mire of desiring to be free of desire?