Requiem for a Traveller

27 07 2011

Ruins

I’ll visit no more ruins.

Ponder no more vanished time’s

Sliding second’s shadows.

Today’s dancing vaudeville

Has me entranced,

And the umbrous shapes

Of scimitars upon the walls

Hold no thrall: Today’s

Kettle is tomorrow’s antique.

I’ll enjoy the future’s antiquity

Today! And to hell with the past!

Is this street , this sunlight

Not enough? And here, in this dream

I move, as lightly as a feather

Blown by this wind or another,

Or sit, crushed like antipasto

Against the shattered windows

Of rickety buses with bad breath,

Buses that never knew the meaning

Of "Full"–tired old buses

That have spent

Too many drunken nights

Upon the town to be loved,

But can still giggle

At every hole in the road,

And who lead,

To darkened streets of mud.

There, where the frightened

Streetlights dare not walk

I wander, finding those

I have come to meet–

Quiet uncomplicated people

With calloused hands.

But then, just as I am

Becoming known, just as voices

Begin to call from

The patient doorways,

"Aye Lorenzo! Lorenzo Que tal?"

The wind picks me up

And I am gone again

Never having realized

When I began this journey

Within the self, this drug

Called travel, would lead me to such

Isolated places; would change

Me from my fellow humans to become

Such a strange incomprehensible

Animal. And now

The walls are shrinking,

Reality is thin, so thin;

The future is echoing

Like a dog in an alley

And only the bamboo

Of the flute understands me.

It is vision that sets a person apart. Every day is full of imperatives—quotidien necessities of sheer survival that drag us into the fight for food, shelter, rent, taxes, money; during which, unobserved, the dogs of time run away with minutes, hours days and eventually, our lives. But what paean can we sing for those who merely survive and plod their weary ways to death? It is to the great cathedrals, the opera houses, the art galleries, to great architecture, to Stonehenge, Ankor Wat, Borobodur, to Shakespeare that we make our pilgrimages. For the rest of the dazzling constructs of our pullulating species, we recognize achievements of survival. This is the distinction between high-rise developers and Antonio Gaudi, between the craftsmanship of Mozart, and the driven ecstasy of Beethoven. The name we give to that difference is Vision. For those creators show us all how we could be if we had what it takes.When we surrender our existences to survival, necessity, we have traded our spiritual lives for bread. Every person has a death. Some of us have a life. Some people eat too much. Some of us are driven by an insatiable hunger called Vision. Then we wander the world searching. This post is an obituary for an extraordinary woman who wanted to see and understand it all.

                              CIMG2159

Patricia Kessler.Swiss mountain bicycle tour guide and intrepid traveller.

I too have wandered and searched, and in 2002 find myself in the tiny Lao village of Muong Ngoi which has one road half a mile long that goes nowhere, and is accessible only by river-boat. During the Vietnam War American bombers of the Secret Airforce scattered cluster bombs across the countryside which, to this day continue to kill and maim children and animals. It was an exquisite and serene little village nestled between the karst mountains through which the pristine Nam Ou river runs on its way to its meeting with the Mekong at Luang Prabang . The gentle country folk whose lives had never changed for thousands of years have now forgotten the war years, which they never understood even when they survived only by cowering for years in the caves in the limestone mountains. There is still no electricity and no phones. But now great unexploded bomb cases serve as gate posts for their houses, or, split in two, as fishing boats. They feed us travelers and make us welcome for pathetically small sums, and never discriminate between world travelers and the young of the pilots who crippled so many of their children. In the evenings the young Western travelers gather around fires, smoked ganja, drink Beer Lao and local whisky, which cost less than beer, and chat. Muong Ngoi has not yet been ‘discovered’ by tourists – a process which invariably destroys such small destinations. And there, one night, I meet a personable young woman in her mid to late thirties. She is at the end of a relationship with a young Thai man though later I came to realize she was still under his spell because Patricia was not one of the modern young and beautiful for whom new relationships are like Thrift store hats , to be discarded after trying them on. And though I rapidly realize where her heart lay, I am attracted to her, and she is very friendly with me despite my age. We hang around the fire pits and talk for a couple of weeks before she told me she was going to Chiang Kong, in north Thailand to meet up with her ex. I too am fresh out of a relationship which is still hurting a lot. But in truth I guess, we both did our best. In any case it was painful and I am feeling beaten up. My self esteem isn’t any kind of esteem at all. When Patricia left I feel sad, and the endless backpacker chatter about directions, destinations and dysentery, is suddenly more than usually boring. Our accommodations are tiny wooden rooms with thin wooden partitions in larger huts. It is hard to sleep. My neighbours on one side, a young French couple, made love all night and talked loudly. Sometime before dawn I drop off and wake to the sounds of the morning- three walls snoring, ducks chuckling and laughing uproariously at some fowl joke, a short muffled drumbeat of wings on feathered breasts, then a hammer blow, followed by its echo from across the river; a motor coughs, falters and then dies. Voices rise and fall. Pots bang in a nearby kitchen. A child cries gently- a plaintive mourning for sleep disturbed. Then more motors start on the riverboats and generators rattle into life as a tranquil village, hooked on tourist money, springs to the task of destroying the peace the travelers with their poisonous money, have come to enjoy. Suddenly I want to see Patricia again. I pack my tiny rucksack, pay my bills, farewell my friendly hosts, and go down to the landing.

It is a sweet river morning, the water flowing like a silent dream of jade. The night mists are lifting off the mountains that rear up on either side, revealing first the fluffy plumage of the slopes, the drooping sweeps of the bamboos between rosewood, and dead teak’s white stripes, and then, seriatim, the sugar-loaf peaks. The local passengers and a few travelers board the boats and after much shoving and shouting two of our boats leave , radically overloaded- I with no desire for early morning swimming, though the Nam Ou is a pricelessly beautiful and pristine river. All too soon we arrive at Non Khiew.

The Toyota pick-up (songthiew) is, as usual, packed. I have standing room on the tailgate clinging to the metal canopy as it swerves through exquisite countryside. After two and a half hours the road becomes more and more pitted until , at last, it is nothing but a strip of crushed rocks under perpetual construction. Twelve inch boulders dot the surface as the curves are redefined as frantic swerves. I brace with both hands to the canopy. The sun drops and it becomes cold and dark.

Finally we arrive at Oudmoxai (pronounced as Oudmacai) a straggled mix of peasant wood homes and more modern, shabby concrete ones. The entire place has a destitute appearance of ultimate urban poverty. Street lighting is non existant. An occasional single 40watt light burns in stores. If Pat is here there is no way I will be able to find her. I doubt if there is a single person in the town who speaks English or even French. I check into a clean slightly expensive little guest house, drop my rucksack and go out to find somewhere to eat. There appears to be nothing attractive in the food stalls. I walk through the darkening night to the end of the town and then turn back. I feel lonely, convinced that I will never see her again and irritated with myself, for not deciding to accompany her when she first announced she was going to meet her ex-boyfriend in Chiang Kong. As I cross back along the darkness of an unlit bridge someone comes the other way.

patricia

                      patricia in blue

 

When we are a few feet away I realize it is Patricia. I cannot imagine another western woman intrepid enough to walk alone in the dark through such a strange and forbidding foreign town. My heart soars. She has booked a bed in a dormitory at the rear of a restaurant. I agree to join her and we go and collect my bag, pay for the room ,and eat a wretched meal in the restaurant.

 

It turns out to be a Chinese-run restaurant/massage/ brothel/gambling den. In the foyer is a T.V. on full volume showing Chinese swish-and-miss kung-fu movies. In the room next door to ours on one side is a gambling table at which five men and four women talk, play cards and argue vociferously. We buy a bottle of Lao whiskey for the equivalent of U.S.$1.50. There is no lock on the door to our dormitory. The switch for the single 2ft neon tube is on the wall of the room outside. In the room on the other side of us, two men sit among the desolate mess of their belongings and smoke a bamboo water pipe. I jam a chair under the door-handle to serve as a lock. Fully clothed we turn in into separate cots. The noise from the gambling den on the other side of the cardboard wall is intense. But we are both very tired and I fall asleep at last, only to be woken by a rat which has scampered over the ceiling and found a sounding board to rasp his teeth against. I get up, stand on the bed and pound on the ceiling. The rat stops. I go back to sleep. The rat returns . This game continues intermittently for some hours. At 4a.m. it wakes me again. I repel it one more time and go outside to pee. The toilets have been locked. We are completely locked in. If there had been a fire we would have been trapped. The filth of the place is difficult for a Westener to imagine without seeing it. I smashed the lock with a shovel head, used the toilet and went back to sleep.

Now, at 7a.m. we are in the bus for Luang Nam Tha standing in the dirt compound that serves for a bus station. The bare ground is covered with plastic garbage. Apple and orange sellers line one side. The songthiews and old Chinese Lanjian trucks that serve as buses line the other side. As the sun rises above the morning mist the Buddhist Wat (temple) on the hill above Oudmoxai appears, its golden spires shining above the tacky city below. The bus fills and fills and fills with tribes-people and their bundles, and children, and bags of bamboo shoots, eggs, oranges, live chickens and piglets and vegetables. Pat, in the seat behind me is almost covered by an old tribeswoman with a face like a crumpled brown-paper bag. She holds two tiny mice-like infants. At last the ‘bus’ moves –one and a half hours late –and begins the five hours of linked S-bends up into the highlands, passing dozens of simple primitive villages of tiny bamboo houses on stilts, like hen houses. Beneath each one the locals are squatting in the dust around small fires, eating, talking, searching each other’s hair for lice. The increasingly bumpy road is lined with men hauling wood with Chinese three-wheel tractors. Crocodile files of women carrying large firewood bundles with head-tumps walk the roads to their daily work in the paddy and vegetable fields. These are scenes that take one back thousands of years of simple subsistence living, and it is difficult to understand the mentality of the American bomber pilots dropping cluster bombs on them simply because their government was Communist, especially when their targets didn’t even know what a government was.

At last we arrive at Nam Tha, tired from bracing through hours of endless curves and badly in need of a shower. We take a room together, and go out to explore the paddy fields on the town’s skirts, and finally stop to eat in an attractive wooden restaurant with a wide roofed terrace. The floors are a mix of mahogany, rosewood and teak. The ceilings are made of tightly woven bamboo matting. We share a som tum( green papaya salad) and a dish of fried vegetables with sticky rice, accompanied by a couple of bottles of excellent Lao beer. We get a little drunk on the remains of the whiskey and talk about her relationship.  Her anxiety not to avoid missing him gives her story the lie. Then we turn in. In the darkness I reach out and find her hand, which she clasps. At sometime because of the fatigue of our long brutal journey, our fingers slide apart in the night.

We wake in a rush to clean up and catch the bus which is alleged to leave at 8a.m.for Houay Xai (Why Sai). The organization at the bus station is non-existent except for a man behind a window in a shack who takes money, has no English or French, and knows nothing. With painstaking interrogation I discover that there are no buses capable of taking the road. Twenty five foreigners and as many locals mill around one beaten-up old Toyota songthiew with no trace of tread on any of the tires. It is already packed. Patricia is tense and agitated. She has her heart set on reaching Chiang Kong in Thailand by the evening. After a lot of milling about, another pick-up arrives. We install ourselves in the back, our packs on the roof. Then we wait. And wait. And wait. More foreigners arrive. One of the ‘officials’ orders us all off the Toyota. Some get off. I refuse. No one has any common language to make any comprehension of the situation. A French lad and I sit tight until another pick-up arrives. This one is newer and actually has some tread on the tires. We disembark and transfer our luggage to the roof of the new one- and wait and wait and wait. Pat, normally sunny, is uptight and her anxiety to get to Chiang Kong tells me about the still hot relationship, even though, when talking about him she adds “He may not be there. Its not important.” The pick-up doesn’t move. Once again we are told to get off and surrender the space to locals and once again I refuse. Another pick up is found after the ‘official’ goes off on a motor-bike to look for one. This one is a decade older with infinite rust and tires that are utterly innocent of tread. On a promise that it will depart ‘NOW’ we again disembark. At least, by this time almost all passengers have left and we only have seven people in the back. Finally we leave but head off in the opposite direction—but it turns out it is merely to gas up, and to everyone’s relief, it leaves and begins to negotiate the appalling road of broken rock and unavoidable potholes, some of which are large and deep enough to accommodate a wallowing water buffalo. In the back we bounce and jostle and cling to the stanchions of the canopy.

The road winds uphill, diminishing in quality as it rises. It is sporadically lined with the same stilt legged bamboo ‘chicken houses’of the local’s bedrooms. In contrast the scenery improves until we are passing through magnificent virgin forest of teak, rosewood, mahogany and bamboo clumps with its elegant, drooping tips. A large area is national park. Huge looping liana vines give the forest the feeling of a Tarzan movie. We ford thirteen creeks and mini rivers, occasionally with water up to the tops of the wheels, pausing to drop off bundles here and there, and once everyone has to disembark to help push out a Chinese three wheel tractor that is stuck in the middle of a creek. At another the current begins to slide us sideways. After 70 kilometers or so, which take four and a half hours, and after it passes a coal mine, the road surface improves a little, but high clouds of dust obscure most of the scenery, covering what was visible, including us, with a dreary coating of sepia dust, that swirls through the open back of the pickup like a desert storm. Finally around five thirty we pulled into Houay Xai. It has been more like a nine hour bull riding session than anything I can imagine. We unload; all the farangs ( foreigners) helping each other to pass down the luggage .

“Will you try to cross tonight if the immigration is open?” I ask Pat. She says that she will. I sense the urgency she has concealed , the strength of her attraction to her ‘ex’. Perhaps its best you go tomorrow” I console her to mollify her for the delays that she feels I caused —perhaps if I had not stayed at our breakfast restaurant to buy us an en-route meal we would have caught the first pick-up to leave.

“Why?”

“Because then you will be able to shower, and meet him fresh and clean. She considers this briefly and then strides off to the Lao immigration office at the edge of the Mekong. The sun is just dropping behind the distant horizon laying a blazing carpet of shifting vermillion across the river. I accompany her to the immigration office where her exit visa is stamped . She hands me some spare change of Kip.

“ I wont need these”

“For the boat.

“I have enough, take it.” I take the two notes of Kip.

“Can I have a drink of whiskey before I go?”

`“Of course.” I unpack the whiskey and she takes a long swig.

“Take another.” She takes another. I put the bottle back in my bag. She comes towards me,

“Goodbye.” I know it means ‘If he is there I won’t see you again.’ We exchange an awkward pre-lovers kiss, swerving at the last minute from cheeks to lips, but only half touching our mouths.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at twelve o’clock.”

“O.K. I say “I hope everything goes in the way of your heart,” I add untruthfully. In my own heart I want her to find her own comfort with mine, but fear keeps reminding me of the improbability of this, even though , at Luang Nam Tha after half a bottle of whiskey we settled into our twin beds entwining our fingers. She runs down the slope to the longboat where a Lao examines her visa and tells her she needs another stamp. She walks up to the office where it was confirmed that she was indeed stamped.

“Want another hit?”

“O.K.” She takes another mouthful of whiskey, turns back down the ramp and then, abruptly, returns and hugs me.

“O.K.” I say as she walks away. “Every cloud has a silver lining” I call tritely pointing to the West where the dying sun has outlined a jagged cumulus in a border of shining gold. She boards the boat and once again I wonder why I wasn’t going with her.

The motor starts and the boat pulls from the dock. She waves. I wave back. I take out my little bamboo flute to play for her, but my face is distorted by the immanence of tears, so I cannot make the correct embouchure. Still, I make a few inept notes. She waves and I return it. The boat heads across the Mekong. By now she is an indistinct gray shape in the bow of the boat, but I can see the wave and again return it. Finally she passes beyond vision. I pick up my bag and walk up past the immigration office. I have to acknowledge a strong feeling of desolation. I walk back along the main street of Houay Xai and check in at the clean cheap Friendship Guest house. In the room I regard my image in the mirror. The dust has rejuvenated my hair, hiding the gray beneath a dusty sepia. I shower, turning the water to mud, change into my only other clothes, shorts and T shirt, and go back to the main street Chinese restaurant, where there is enough light to write. I think of their meeting and lovemaking and a deep sense of loneliness invades me. The remains of the whiskey bottle beckons me. I return to my pure-white ,insipid room at the Friendship and eat half a triazolam tab.There are times when anesthesia is friendly. And I remember that this is the third time that I have come to the banks of the Mekong to deal with love-pain. It is almost as though this great muddy river is an emotion drain into which I can pour all my suffering and let it flow slowly downstream. Early in the morning I cross over to Chiang Kong in Thailand.

The Mekong is a sultry lover, rising late and clothed in a filmy dress. On land the people are up and about by seven, but the river slumbers on and even in the afternoon at times the hills are misted, and the sounds of boats comes muted through fogs. Then at night, suddenly the frogs sing.

I check into a beautiful Guest House on the banks, its cabins staggered at different heights and connected by wooden steps beneath the massive sweeps of banana trees. Above my bed is a little photo of Leonado de Caprio and Kate Winslow. Their forheads are touching. Beneath them is the word “Titanic.” Pat’s ex has not shown up. She has decided to go to the South. I am the sole occupant of this beautiful rustic place crouched beneath the banana’s great, green paddles. In the evening I sit and watch the river and sip at a bottle of Lao whiskey ($1.75 a bottle ) and play my harmonica. I play a sweet and soulful song for my female life- companion I now know will never be: a song of regret at my unaltered inability to know what a woman wants in a man; a song of sadness for my blindness, for the hole in my heart that will never be filled, a song for the paradox that the nicer I become in life the less attractive I appear to be. It is a song for the deep aching hospital of the human heart. And it is a song for Patricia.

                   ICIMG2168

Patricia and me at the Riverside Guest House

 

After she leaves I get a little drunk, or maybe more than a little, and re-enact my life’s past journey. I am thrown then into a whirlwind of people moving in all directions, touching each other momentarily, sometimes with repulsion, sometimes with a pathetic attraction, doomed to be broken by the force of our movements.Thus we recognize each other suddenly as being the ones we are all searching for–the deep mate of the starving soul. But the movement is too strong and we cannot cling. The whirlwind takes us all and scatters us like fragments of paper in a fan. There is really no holding on, the velocity of our energies is so great.. But we recognize in these brief moments of touching and separating again, the possibility of that searched-for one—and the impossibility. Oh God! How much joy there is and beneath it, how much sadness, For to know that The Someone is indeed out there but ungraspable is worse in some ways than being convinced of the opposite. Nothing is as cruel as hope when it is so hopeless, nothing so desperate as our clinging hands and the flashes of energy made, as our outstretched fingers slip from the other’s. Yes, we are marshaled like a determined army of pilgrims, eyes resolutely fixed ahead and around us, despite the knowledge we all have that the goal of our pilgrimage lies, somehow, in the other direction—nowhere less than within us all, the one place we fear to look, because of our inability to regard the inscrutable, and merciless gaze, of a terrible solitude. So we cling together in groups and affirm, collectively, the value of our communality, whilst all the while inwardly acknowledging, the terrible sovereignty of that solitude of our souls. But what a brave show we make of that pathetic denial! How brightly our voices sing! How well we play the game of eternal togetherness even as the energy of our search, scatters us further and further. We are islands of love, growing closer and closer apart.

What are we doing there, whatever it is? What is the nature of the force that causes us all to enter this shifting velocity? These and a thousand other questions haunt us and preoccupy us in those long nights- that and the tears we shed as our desperate bonds sunder. But no answers surface from our vortex of movement, though we talk about the nature of our diaspora as though it was controllable, could we only name and categorize it, or perhaps even publish it in a book. All of which preoccupations are hopeless; there is no surcease of the pain, no cessation of the flow, no escaping the inevitable centrifugal drift towards the perimeter over which seriatim, those before us, disappear. Oh God! We called to the darkness beyond. Help us Help us! But no answer returns from that edge. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us . Teach us to sing in that solitude, Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!

Later Patricia and I became fast friends who met each year in Bangkok and went deeper and deeper into the most remote places of Asia. She was the ultimate travelling companion, fearless, indefatigable , democratic and happy to crash for the night in any welcoming peasant’s hovel. She would trek all day through wild country and primitive civilizations, haggle with and befriend any local and at night, wolf down a whole chicken, grasping it in both hands like the hungry, healthy animal she was. Last spring Patricia died of cancer at age 41. During her last night our spiritual fingers slipped apart again. Happy travelling Patricia. This post is my requiem for you. Laurie July 19th 2011. Requiiescat in pace

Copyright. No part of this post may be reproduced in any medium except with permission from the author,and remains the intellectual property of Laurie Payne.

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