Day 147: Make Houay Xay great again
Sometimes the world forces you to pause and enjoy it. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
AS AN American, after eight hours on the road, with the taste of dust and and the fake tan that comes with the taste, the last thing I want to do is talk about Donald Trump. At this point in the election, with the third debate only a day away and the tide seeming to have turned in the second debate – despite the pussy grabber moniker – it's hard to think of any American abroad who wants to talk about the man.
“Where you from?” asks a white man sitting on the patio outside of Friendship Guesthouse 2.
“America,” I say, standing there in full riding gear, having dismounted only moments ago.
“Don't tell me your voting for that tangerine dildo.”
“Trump? No, I wouldn't be voting for him.”
The Australian, Nigel, who's sipping a beer with his Laos nephew, launches into a tirade about Trump, while trumpeting the qualities of Hilary Clinton.
“She's the most qualified person for the job in years. Look at her resume,” Nigel says.
Jess has booked our room and slipped away downstairs, leaving me alone with Nigel and his nephew to talk politics.
Nigel, about 54 years old, is a small, but muscular guy with the smoothest skin and twinkling blue eyes. His skin is the kind of smooth that leads to Jess complimenting him on it later; it's exemplary to say the least. His nephew, Koa, is nearly silent, giving only a shy smile when Nigel jokes about the fact that he's not allowed to call him uncle.
“Okay, let me go shower up and we'll catch you for a beer afterward,” I say, prying myself free from his monologue.
This morning, Jess and I woke at a reasonable time, had coffees in the Clup Town and then hit the road.
At the center of the town, there's a red and white Eiffel Tower structure that the die thankfully decided we didn't need to check out. Without any detours, we've lined up a long day in the saddle in order to reach Houay Xay today.
The motorbike comes to a stop on the far side of a bridge after we enter the small town of Nam Eng. A dingy restaurant without any signage overlooks a small river. Swinging a leg back across Rocinate, I join Jess on the side of the street.
The keys to the bike slip from my hand. The entire bundle of keys, seven-legged spider key chain and all, slip between the cement drainage slots at me feet without a sound, disappearing into the darkness. They fell perfectly, a swoosh, if we were playing basketball. But we're not. We're playing race to the border before the fees for import and export violations, as well as visa overstays start to rack up.
“Oh no,” Jess says, looking at the slot between my legs, which hardly makes me feel manly in the moment.
Getting down on my padded knees, I peer into the darkness. The keys are glinting on the mucky bottom about a meter down.
“Okay, we just need a coat hanger or something,” I say, helplessly looking around. I prowl around the edge of the restaurant, which seems to triple as a shop and home as well. The staff don't speak a word of English and I can't even begin to explain what I need in Thai. I do have extra keys, as well as a magnet on an extendable rod, both of which are locked into the bike's panniers. The keys to the sideboxes, unsurprisingly, are with the key to the bike, in the darkness below.
Dangling the hook of a red bungee cord that had been holding Jess's bag to the top box, I'm able to reach down to the keys. The hook snags one of the rings. There's the light weight of them on the line, like when you accidentally catch a bait fish. Cautiously, I pull the cord up, praying that the keys don't bump the edges of the drain and fall back into the darkness.
“That was a lot easier than I anticipated,” I said, keys in hand.
“Yeah, I thought we were in big trouble.”
We dive into lunch, before drive 20 meters in order to buy a Red Bull to prevent me taking a post-lunch siesta on the bike.
Knowing the distance we have to cover – about 200 kilometers – it's hard to justify making any stops. So, sometimes the world has to step in and force you to stop.
The crash stopped traffic in both directions. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We pull up next to line of cars, many of which passed us earlier. Their motors are off. Ahead, the wreckage of a lorry is suspended in the air by a crane, the crane's feet press into the road to stop the weight of the truck pulling it down the steep embankment on either side of the road. The crane is blocking both lanes of traffic as it attempts to haul the entire lorry back up and maneuver it onto the road bed of another truck.
“Want to go down to the stream?” Jess asks.
A shallow stream bed has been following the road through the valley, cutting beneath it right before the road climbs back up into the mountains.
“Definitely, I've been wanting to get in for awhile now.”
Jess has me walk ahead of her on the narrow path down to the brook – in case there are snakes.
“The one time on this trip I'm wearing a thong,” Jess bemoans, unable to strip down and jump into the water.
Had I not spent the last month driving through villages where men were down to their underwear bathing from public spouts along the roadside, I might hesitate stripping down to my black undies and climbing in.
The water is a refreshing cold. A cold that feels clean, pure. Sitting down on the pebble bottom, I watch Jess roll up her pant legs and step into the stream. On the far side of the stream, a man in a blue long-sleeve shirt uses a scythe to harvest rice in a paddy. Upstream, a local woman wades through the water, slashing the large leaves of Elephant Ears with a machete, collecting the stems, which look like over-sized pieces of celery.
Foraged foods are still regularly used in the Laos diet. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Look at you hottie,” Jess says, snapping a couple pictures for me.
“If you say so, though I think we both know that I'm getting pudgy on this trip,” I say. “Looks like they're making progress. Maybe we should head back to the bike.”
Slowly dressing, the sun provides a welcome warmth as it dries the cold droplets from the river still clinging to my body.
A couple of men are pulling a large rope attached to the lorry, maneuvering it back on the road now that the crane has the entire vehicle in the air.
Our lane is clear to move first. The lorries waiting to make the climb fire up their engines, the diesel beasts coming to life with hefty coughs.
Rocinante slides into line between two of the lorries. Hitting the hill in a low gear, the semi-truck ahead of us is crawling forward.
“Fuck, fuck, what the fuck?” I yell, not able to find the horn.
The driver of the truck behind us, keen on riding the ass of the one ahead of us, is looking right over us, completely unaware that he's about to kill two people.
We aren't moving fast enough to maneuver the bike, we're stuck. There isn't even a shoulder to hide on.
The driver's wife, riding passenger, spots us right before he begins to slowly crawl over Rocinante and her passengers. He hits the brakes, jerking to a stop.
Fuming, I want to stop the bike and scream at him. However, the woman's waving us forward. And what good would all the screaming do?
The sun is sinking into the Mekong as we drive pass the international border crossing into Thailand and chug along the Laos-side of the Mekong in search of a place to stay.
“If it's even, we turn around and book a room at Friendship Guesthouse. If it's odd, we keep looking,” I tell Jess after we check the prices at a couple places and are starting a second lap along the river.
“Evens,” I say, after checking the die in my necklace.
Sweat and dust are visible on my face after I yank my helmet off, I'm ready for a shower and a coffee. We'll have the rest of today and most of tomorrow in town, while waiting for my bag to arrive. Hopefully, the border won't close and we can cross over as soon as I pick up the bag, avoiding any overstay fees.
“Don't tell me your voting for that tangerine dildo?” Nigel says in a soft Australian accent, possibly from Melbourne.
Nigel and his Koa are still finishing their beers outside, waiting for us, when we emerge from our room downstairs. Despite being abreast the Mekong, Friendship Guesthouse 2 was not designed to optimize the view. Our room, is a small unattractive place with one big bed and shutters that make it nearly impossible to see the river.
“Is there an ATM close by?” I ask Nigel.
There's one within walking distance, so we set off. If they're still around when we get back we'll join them for a drink, we say.
“Want to stop for a coffee?” I ask Jess on the way back.
We pop into a little place with wicker chairs. The die orders me an Americano and I grab a bag of cookies to go along with it – there is a reason I'm getting pudgy again. Jess orders a tea.
“It's not even a conversation. I was just standing their listening to him tell me things that I already know and agree with. If he'd asked a few questions to understand my stance and my understanding, it would have been better, but he didn't,” I whine to Jess.
“Yeah, he could have at least let you shower first.”
When we get back, Nigel and his nephew have absconded.
In celebration of our last day in Laos, Jess and I buy a bottle wine from the reasonably priced duty free shop in town. We narrow it down to a couple options of red wine and then let the die make the final decision. I would have voted for a bottle of hard liquor, but I make a point to never complain about having a bottle of wine. Wine wrapped up in a brown paper bag, we stroll the main street in the dark, searching for a restaurant.
We make our way down wide cement road to the large platform of Riverside Houayxay Restaurant, which overlooks the Mekong.
The stern of a replica ship juts into the dining area, marking the spot as a tourist-targeted destination.
Sitting in the middle of the dining area, at one of only two occupied tables is Nigel and his family.
“Hey Isaac, Jess,” Nigel calls out, waving us down with a hand and and a sparkling smile. “This is my wife, Noi, my son, Beer, and you already know my nephew.”
Noi, a pretty woman with high cheek bones, is wearing a cocktail dress and is a sight to behold. Her son, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, sits across from her, wearing a big smile as the adults talk.
Spotting my MAG shirt, which I bought to support the organization disarming unexploded ordinances in the country, Noi starts talking about President Obama.
“He came here,” she says, pulling out her phone. She holds up a picture of one of her relatives in a blue dress standing next to the president.
“They love Obam here,” Nigel chimes in. “He built so much good will with the people when he visited.”
About a week before I arrived in Laos, Obama became the first US president to visit the country since the Secret War, which left millions of unexploded ordinances (UXO) littering the nation. These UXOs, mostly bombies from cluster bombs, continue to kill and injure children, as well as adults in the country.
During his visit, Obama made it clear that the US had an “obligation” to help Laos recover from the bombing.
“Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” CNN reported Obama saying. “Ancient plains were devastated. Countless civilians were killed. That conflict was another reminder whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.”
“The remnants of war continue to shatter lives here in Laos,” Obama said. “Many of the bombs dropped never exploded. Over the years thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured, farmers tending fields, children playing. The wounds, a missing leg or arm, last a lifetime. That's why I've dramatically increased or funding to remove these unexploded bombs.”
Obama pledge an additional 90 million dollars to a three-year, Laos-US effort to clear more bombs. I'd scoffed at the pledge when I read the headlines. Compared to the estimated 13.3mn dollars worth of bombing that took place everyday for nine years, the 90mn is a pittance, a clear bid to gain better traction with the Southeast Asian country in the United States' attempt to contain China.
What I didn't understand was how deeply the Laos people appreciated the gesture: Noi is positively glowing as she talks about Obama's visit.
The conversation moves back to Clinton and Trump, as the third debate is tomorrow morning.
“Dear, let them sit down,” Noi says, cutting Nigel off so we can take our table.
“We'll talk more later,” I say, genuinely enjoying their company.
Though Nigel is dominating the conversation, Jess and I both understand where he's coming from. As the only expat in town – and Nigel is the only expat in Houay Xay – Nigel doesn't have a lot of people with which to talk. Noi speaks English, though it has its limitations. Koa, who is an exceptionally well-educated hydrologist, is only in town for a couple of days. Even when I was living in Thailand, I'd spend so much time with my own thoughts, it would be hard not to start gushing as soon as I had someone's attention.
After we place our order, Nigel wanders over with two full glasses of wine in hand. He sets the glasses down for Jess and me.
“It's a very nice wine. The duty-free shop in town has great prices for wine,” he confides.
“Thank you so much. When you're finished, why don't you join us over here and we can continue talking,” I suggest.
They're mostly finished with their meal. Nigel's family leaves what's left of a beautifully steamed fish on a platter and pull up chairs at our table.
“So do you have a traveling magic show?” Nigel asks, having spotted the “Simonelli's Traveling Magic Show” stickers on Rocinante's panniers when we arrived in town.
“Well, kind of. When I started the project, I had anticipated spending more time developing the magic show, so I had to do the marketing stuff ahead of time. Unfortunately, I've not really done much since. I did a show for a school in Thailand, but that's about it.”
“As soon as he saw the stickers, he started trying to Google it,” Koa says.
“I couldn't find it anywhere online.”
“Yeah, that's because it's not a real thing yet. I've done nothing to promote the idea online.”
The conversation flows like an undammed river. We touch on the hydrology issues facing the country, as Laos attempts to balance the desire to power itself and nearby nations with hydroelectric dams with conserving the local ecosystems and not destroying the lives of those that live along the rivers and depend on them for their livelihoods. The conversation then drifts to sapphires. It turns out that there is a major sapphire deposit in the region. Though the presence of the gem stones was known internationally by the 1980s, the full promise of the region wasn't fully realized until the 1960s due to the fairly small size of the gems.
“When we were kids Koa would always cry because he couldn't get the chicken neck. There was only one and he wanted it, but he couldn't have it. He cried all the time about things,” Noi says, teasing Koa about his introverted nature.
Even now, years later, it's easy to see that he struggles to find his footing in a conversation. While the others are talking, he and I dive into the topic of hydrology. Patiently, he waits for someone who cut him off to stop talking so that he can resume what he was telling me about the environmental impacts of dams in the region. He's soft spoken, hesitating as he talks, despite his fluency in English, as well as German.
“He's probably one of the best educated men in Laos,” Nigel proudly says. “His wife is a lecturer at the university. Also an incredibly well-educated person.”
A server arrives with our food.
“Why don't you both come to my bar for a drink after dinner?” Nigel offers.
“Sure, we can check it out. Where is it?”
“It's not a public bar. It's at our house, right by the pool. But we've got the big signs and the long, wooden bar top. I designed it all myself.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jess and I agree.
Chatting with Nigel and Noi reminds me of being back in the US, spending time with my aunt's and uncles. It's a blessing from the Stone-side of my family to have adult relatives and their friends treat you like an adult from an early age. The practice stems from the fact that my parents made a habit of speaking to us children as adults rather than kids “who will grow out of things” or “still have much to learn about life”.
Nigel's home is exquisitely designed. The narrow, 25-meter pool runs along the side of the multi-storey building. The steep slop of the backyard has been salvaged by using hexagonal cement frames to create a stepping rice paddy effect, each frame housing a fruiting tree or flower bush. Halfway down, a custom designed sala rises out of the slop.
“Over there is a putting green I put in so I can teach my son golf,” Nigel says with pride.
Nigel's love for Beer, his son, not the beverage, is heartwarming. Though not his biological father, as we learned while talking with him and Noi, he is without Beer's father: unconditionally loving the boy and teaching him to golf, swim and so much more.
The pool is sapphire blue as Jess and I make ourselves comfortable not far from the long bar table. Behind the bar hang a few large, glowing signs for one brand of alcohol or another. There is also a home-made rifle, a crossbow and black and white picture of Noi's grandfather, who fought in a number of wars and was a big man in town before he passed. Thick chains also hold up the old man's scooter, which was the first scooter to grace the streets of Houay Xay.
“He had at least eight wives that most people knew of and who knows how many more woman on the side,” Nigel says with a grin. “When I married Noi, all her relatives came to warn me to take good care of her. I said, 'Yes, of course, I'll be just like her grandpa.' They were like, 'No, no'. Then, realized that I was joking and started laughing.”
It's safe to say the man was a bit of notorious enigma in the mafia run town. Nigel recalls a story of the man when he was in his mid 80s hitting a relative up for several dollars to go down to the local brothel to have sex with a 15-year-old girl.
Nigel disappears to start making mojitos with Noi, while Kao strips down to his underwear and jumps into the pool. The air is a bit chilly, but I shower and join him in the pool, while Jess remains in her chair.
The mojoits, carefully crafted with mint grown Noi's backyard, arrive. Leaning on the edge of the pool I join the conversation.
Noi leads Jess away to see the house, which apparently ends up with her showing Jess this pair of shoes or that item, telling her how much each thing costs. Not to brag, but as if that was an essential part of the sharing process.
“Come set off lanterns with us,” Noi says.
We follow them to the upstairs balcony, past Nigel's impressive DVD collection and full collection of Encyclopedias.
In the dark of the balcony, we unfold the large, white paper lanterns, lighting the circular wicks below. Gently, I hold mine on the edges as the hot air fills the lantern, beginning to give it lift, like a hot air balloon. Kao and Jess have already sent theirs up into the night sky, with Beer putting the lanterns between the hairlines of the scope on his pellet gun in an attempt to shoot them down.
Mine takes off, gently floating up into the sky, the moon bright behind it. It shutters as Beer sends a pellet through it, but continues up until it hits a certain altitude, where a cross wind grabs it and sends it sailing through the night sky. Like Koa's, mine becomes a tiny dot, the warmth of its color the only thing distinguishing it from the stars. It flickers, then goes dark.
Down stairs, we have a water before hitting the road.
Noi shows us an extraordinary golden-pearl necklace that Nigel bought her in Australia. Nigel's philosophy for jewelry seems to be the same one he holds for design: focus on elegance and uniqueness.
“I'd never seen any piece like this before,” he explains.
“I didn't even know pearls could be golden,” I admit.
Noi also shows us several pieces of sapphire jewelry that she has acquired. Using my phone, I shine a light through them. The quality of the stones are fair at best, the color inconsistent with several deep blue streaks and flaws in them. However, the flaws make them unique. I can't help but be impressed. They are all fairly large stones. If cut by a different jeweler, they might have been shaved down to much smaller, more perfect stones.
“The settings should be white gold, but they don't know what that is here,” Nigel explains. Jess seems to agree.
“I'd love to visit tomorrow and see how they cut them. I find this stuff fascinating,” I tell Noi as I look at the pieces. Noi is friends with the owner of the biggest jewelry shop in town.
“I can take you,” she says. “Oh, we have to go food shopping in Thailand tomorrow. Maybe we can go in the morning though. What time are we leaving?”
Nigel and Noi cross into Thailand about once a week to do their grocery shopping, as there's a better selection of goods at better prices on the other side of the river.
“I also have 47 uncut black sapphires,” Noi says.
“When I was cleaning out my grandfathers room, I found this small bag under his bed. I look inside and see sapphires. Immediately, I hide them in my shirt and run out past my mom back to show Nigel,” she says with a charming, impish grin. “Want to see?”
“I'll give you one,” Noi tells Jess in her child-like excitement to share.
Noi disappears, returning with a small plastic box. Inside is a bag of sapphires, which she dumps out onto the table. To an untrained eye, it would be impossible to distinguish these rough, black pebbles from countless other pebbles one would find at the bottom of a natural gravel pit.
A black sapphire should not be mixed up with black spinel, which is an accessory mineral to corundum. Sapphire is the popular name for one of the varieties of the mineral corundum, and though the vibrant blue color of the mineral is the first that to comes to mind, it does come in many different colors. A high-quality black sapphire is nearly opaque, its blackness absorbing nearly all light that enters it.
Fingers the stones on the table, I'm amazed. Since childhood, I've dreamed of panning for gold or kicking through some gem-rich riverbed or rock formation and finding exquisite, valuable minerals. Though I can spot a piece of fools gold from a mile away, it seems that I'd tread over truly valuable minerals without a second thought.
“Come tomorrow morning for breakfast,” Noi says.
“Yes. I'll have the debate on, but come along,” Nigel says.
“We'd love to. That would be great.”
After giving everyone hugs goodbye, Jess and I climb onto the bike and head for our hotel room.
“What incredible people,” Jess says.
“I know. Absolutely amazing. They've made Houay Xay. They've made what could have been a dull visit on the way out of Laos great. Meeting them is now one of the highlights of the trip.”