Day 148: Children's laughter echoing in our ears
Had it not been for good advice from a local expat we'd have been too shy too have made a small donation to the school. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
AFTER a splendid breakfast with our adopted family in Laos – Nigel, Noi and Beer – Jess and I hunt for school supplies.
Donating the supplies was one of Nigel's many suggestions.
“The schools are grateful for anything at all. Take some notebooks to them and they'll be put them to good use,” he told us last night.
“They aren't going to re-sell them?” Jess asks, aware that in some places donations don't make it to the kids.
“That's a problem some places, but here they'll be put to good use.”
At a small shop on the edge of town, we create a pile of notebooks, pens, colored pencils, rulers and erasers.
“What about these?” Jess asks, holding up some scissors.
“In a country where any child over the age of six is carrying sharp, bladed tool, I don't think they need blunted scissors,” I say with a smile.
It feels like we've nearly cleared the entire store of any supplies useful for school kids, but we end up with only a couple sacks of items. And even these runs up a tab of 35 Dollars.
“It adds up fast,” Jess says, though I'm sure she wouldn't have hesitated to spend three times this much if there were more supplies that she considered useful.
“Yeah, but lets split the price. Add it to my tab.”
We avoid dropping off the supplies at a school in town, thinking that more rural classrooms will be in greater need and more appreciative.
Cruising along the river, we spot the parking area for an ancient riverside Buddha image that Nigel suggested we check out. Between the suggestions from Noi and Nigel, Jess and I could easily spend a couple days exploring the region, and that's not including doing the Gibbon Experience excursion, where you can spend several days and nights in the jungle canopy – never setting foot on the forest floor.
We pass through several small villages, searching for a school, before we arrive in Nam Yone village. A small sign on the main road marks the school grounds.
Inside the outer wall of the school yard is an enormous field, the grass growing tall, a rusted frame of a nestles football goal, erect but unused. At the back of the compound a string of classrooms with wooden shutters are lined up in a long cement building, shaded by large trees. Some kids are wandering the grounds, while others seem to be loitering in the classrooms.
The hundred-meter drive from the entrance up a narrow dirt path toward the classrooms seems to take forever, as feel dozens and dozens of eyes following our progress.
Though the kids are in the classrooms, at least some of them are, there don't appear to be any teachers present.
“Teacher?” I ask a group of kids who are cautiously, starring at us. They burst into laughter and retreat.
Walking in the shade of the trees, we head to another building in hopes of finding adults. The children begin to pour out of the classrooms, following us as if we are Pied Piper of Hamelin. The bravest follow closely behind, the rest fan out behind them.
“Hello?” we ask, peeking into sparsely furnished office where two men are sitting.
The teachers rise to warmly great us.
“We have some notebooks we want to give you.”
If it hadn't been for Nigel, neither Jess nor I would be bold enough to come in and make such a donation. It requires an intimacy that we in the western world seem to shy away from, especially when making such a small donation. We would rather type a dollar amount into a box online and return to our lives, rather then directly interact with those to which we're giving.
But as Nigel said: It is always appreciated and you can do this in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar too. Remember, a little goes a long way.
Intellectually, we know how poor some of these communities are, as well as how far a few dollars can go when we're traveling. But emotionally, it's hard to fully understand the impact of the gift. Of course, we're not changing any ones life; to think so would be foolish. However, having seen that the kids have no school supplies at all, a donation of notebooks will without a doubt be put to good use.
The kids aren't supposed to come into the office, but as the crowd grows behind those on the front line, they are bubbling through the entrance.
As seems to be customary in Southeast Asia, the exchange of a gift or prize is accompanied by an awkward, overly-formal photograph. My life at the Phuket Gazette was full of these moments during the holiday season. One moment, you'd be loosening your tie, flipping through photos of a bloated drowning victim to see if there are any identifying tattoos that the police or reporters forgot to mention, the next you're standing in the front lobby, holding half of a gift basket with a beautiful PR and marketing rep on the other side for a mini-photoshoot.
One of the two teachers at the school takes pictures, while the other – the one in an orange polo shirt – grasps my hand, the pile of school supplies on a table in front of us.
Jess at stands off to the side.
“Jess, come here,” I say, pulling her into the photo, knowing full well that she should be the one doing the hand shaking, as she was the driving force behind making the donation.
With our compulsory photos taken, we turn toward the doorway.
Two steps later, the children are fleeing, parting in front of me like the Red Sea. Jess lets out a gleeful laugh.
Those upfront remain brave for as long as possible, but eventually turn and push into the crowd as their peers' smiling faces erupt into laughter.
I feel like the farmer from Gulliver's Travels, or perhaps the one portrayed in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Back at the bike, with more than 50 kids crowding around us, we dig out a bag balloons.
Eventually we ran out of breath, and then balloons. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The children press in around us, no longer afraid, hands out in hopes of getting a balloon. Jess blows up a pink one, ties it and hands it out. I nearly go blue in the face trying to blow up an orange one, much to the kids' delight. After passing out several balloons with purpose, making sure this one round-faced child with a little decay on his front teeth and the most genuine smile, gets one, I give up and start tossing the balloons into the air, letting the kids good-naturedly fight over them.
One of the tossed balloons is hit and bounces back into the sky before a pair of hands is able to grab it and pull it down. Jess, having more patience and a great deal more experience with children, continues to hand the balloons out one by one.
A bit light-headed from blowing up balloons, I begin to hand out the floppy, colorful pieces of plastic, so the kids can blow them up.
With the bag empty, Jess and I climb onto Rocinate. Surrounded by a sea of smiling faces wearing white dress shirts or simple t-shirts, we head back to the road.
“Thank you so much for wanting to do this Jess,” I say. “I felt so bad about not getting you up front for those photos.”
At the school, the road splits. A sign points down a dirt and gravel road to the Nam Nyon Waterfall.
The we pass another school, this one appearing to be more in need than the last. And then another school, even more in need. Between the schools and small villages are rice paddies.
We park in the shade provided by a homemade awning in the grassy area along a stream near the waterfall.
A bright-faced woman appears with a ticket book. We pay a small fee of a few thousand Kip.
It's not much of a waterfall, more a babbling stream that has hit a steep section and a few well-rounded boulders. We strip down and hop into the clear, cold water. It turns out to be two streams, making our way across them, we are confronted by the Nam Nyaon Waterfall.
The majestic, seven-meter waterfall is set back into a narrow river path worn between beautifully sculpted, exposed bedrock. The rocks look as if they were carved from blackened wax with a hot knife. Three streams of water gush down before being guided through a squeeze and flowing out into a large, placid pond.
We pushed forward to the secret pool at the base of the waterfall. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Two young Laos boys play in the pond as we approach, while a white couple strips down to their underwear, like us, and swim toward the rocks on the far side.
The silty mud on the edge of the cool pool turns to sand as we wade deeper into it. We swim out toward the couple.
“Hello,” the man says, in a heavy Russian accent. The pair are from Ukraine, working at a Laos casino up the Mekong.
Jess and I push into the gorge. The rock is perfectly smooth beneath my hands. My fingers search for a ledge to start a boudlering problem, but even though the shapes are there, everything is too slick, too wet to climb.
The water hammers down over a meter-wide squeeze. Beyond it, there is a small pool, twin streams of the waterfall breaking up as they fall from seven meters above into it.
“It looks like the doorway to a magical land,” I say to Jess.
Despite the allure, neither of us is brave enough to push through the squeeze to gain the pool.
The Ukrainian couple appears behind us. The man in wearing the awkwardly high-cut underwear that the Russian-speaking community have an affinity for, while the plump young woman is in narrow, leopard-print panties.
This is not their first time to the waterfall. Without hesitation, they press through the pass, the water nearly ripping off the woman's underwear.
“Shall we?” I ask Jess.
A hard stream of water hits me in the eye before I can blink, but I make it through, as does Jess – who nearly losses both of her contacts in the process.
In the small, deep pool on the other side we are indeed in a magical place.
The Ukrainian couple stay for a few minutes, then leave.
Alone, Jess and I swim through across the pool, and scramble behind the waterfall's curtain. The alcove behind the watery veil is relatively dry with enough room for two. Through gaps in the falling water, the rocks on the far side frame up a wooden sala in the shade of a flowering tree, its limbs bursting with yellow blossoms.
It's the perfect moment to lean in for a kiss. But we don't.
“It's getting late, we should go soon,” I say. Wanting to be sure we're at the slow-boat landing before the barge carrying my bag arrives.
“We are so privileged,” Jess says. “In a few years, this place might not be like this anymore.”
She's right. Though it might take more than a couple years, these magical places seem to be quickly evaporating as they pick up heat on the internet.
Dozens of long, narrow Laos-style barges are piled up along the bank of the Mekong at the landing ramp. Leaving Jess with the bike, I march back up to a nearby shop to get phone credit to call Mrs Lee, the woman who was in charge of sending the bag up river. It's not clear where the boat with my bag is supposed to be. Hopefully, I'll be able to track down someone to talk with her and get it sorted.
The line is breaking up. It's hard to hear what she's saying.
She hangs up.
A man unloading white people at the bottom of a steep set of steps waves to me.
“You send bag?” he asks.
“Okay, we have it.”
He climbs back on the boat and drags the heavy bag through the seating area to the stern.
“Mrs Lee, yes, I have it now. Thank you so much,” I say, calling her back.
The sun is setting as we strap the weighty bag down to the top box, putting more pressure on the rack than it was built for.
“We'll have to go really slowly, especially on the bumps so it doesn't break off. I've no idea what we'll do if it breaks,” I tell Jess once Rocinante is loaded up and everything is tied down.
Had the border closed sooner, poor Jess had volunteered to stay behind to collect the bag and take it across for me, so that Rocinante and I could get out of the country before accumulating any fees. However, Nigel assured us that it would remain open for some time after we collected the bag.
Ten kilometers out of town, we arrive at Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge 4. There were rumors of unofficial escorts being required to make the crossing – a way for officials to pad their wallets. However, with at Thai-registered bike and the right paperwork in hand, we were greeted with the “thumb, thumb” of the right to pass through immigration.
“It's sad and strange. This might be the last time I ever enter Thailand. I know it's a melodramatic thought, but it's true,” I say.
The man reviewing the bike import/export information, points out that Rocinante should have been out of Laos yesterday, but only charges a token 20,000 Kip fee.
Tentatively, we drive into Chiang Khong.
“If we can't find a bus to take the bag to Chiang Rai tonight, I think we should sleep here and sort out the bag in the morning,” I say.
The Green Bus company, which runs directly to Chiang Mai, is closed when we arrive. At least we assume it's closed, as we're unable to find the station marked on the map.
We book a room with two twin beds, after the hotelier informs us that we'll be able to ship the bag to Chiang Mai in the morning.
The key will be for us to arrive ahead of the bag, so we can collect it, wrap up another chapter of Dice Travels and take an off-record break in the tourist town.