This Week: Our bombs kill Laos children
“If you were working in the United States of America in the 60s, your tax dollars are still killing children in Laos.”
This Week – surely not this week – the die set the stage for us to dive into the Secret War in Laos. Instead of letting Rocinante – my Honda CB500X – and me follow a reasonable travel plan, hitting up the Plain of Jars first, we are forced to giddy-up and drive deep into the night on the winding mountain roads of Laos to the spiritual heart of the country – Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a slick little town. Walking along the wet, smooth bricks it's hard to find your stride for fear of slipping, but that's not what I mean by slick; all the obtuse, gaudy yellow Beer Lao signs that marked the vast majority of restaurants, guesthouses and other businesses along Highway 13 – if that spartan road can be consider a highway – are nowhere to be seen. The businesses in town are classy, restored buildings with wooden shutters flung open, tropical trees growing nearby and small wood signs with gold script.
The die passes on a desperately need shave and instead votes to go see the UXO Visitor Center. The center is dedicated to explaining the threat and history of unexploded ordinances (UXO) in Laos – the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.
Those bombs, which continue to kill about one person a day, are American bombs.
After getting lost a couple times, I'm eventually confronted by a row of man-sized bombs standing at attention, morbid decorations along the walkway to the center. The UXO compound itself is a place of work. It's a place that facilitates bomb recovery and destruction, as well as education. This primary purpose is obvious as soon as I step into the parking lot, which has no guests' cars, only large white SUVs for the Laos UXO team.
“Where are you from?” a young woman behind a tattered desk asks as I step into the single room of the visitor center.
“America,” I say with more guilt than anticipated.
At home and abroad, I've always been proud of my American heritage. People often tell me that I'm “not American”, usually because of the general worldly knowledge one picks up on the road and my liberal stances on social issues. But I argue I am American, why should conservatives get to use all the precious symbols of my nation for their own agenda. The flag, the anthem, those are mine. And, like Colin Kaepernick, it's my right to publicly protest when those symbols do not accurately reflect me as a member of this great nation. I don't protest, it's not my style. However, while living in Phuket I slept under a giant American flag as part of my attempt to reclaim an element of my heritage, which I refuse to allow others to turn it into a symbol of racism, hate and destruction. That's not saying those aren't issues that we face in America. However, that is not what we as a nation strive for.
However, right in this moment, I'd like to be Canadian.
More than 260 million bombies were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Of those, an estimated 78 million, each with a killing radius of 30 meters, failed to explode on impact. These cluster munitions, bombies, are the main cause of UXO causalities and deaths in Laos. General purpose bombs are hazards, while both land mines and land serviced ammunition are not categorized as high risks.
A dissected cluster bomb, a huge metal shell filled with small bombies that would rain death, lays on the ground in the center of the UXO Visitor Center. A cluster ammunition consists of the larger canister that would open in mid-air and the submunitions, bombies, would carpet an area the size of two or three football pitches. In 2008, Laos signed the international treaty Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of cluster munitions in. But they continue to kill.
(Full story here.)
Greg saved me by teaching me how to change the back brake pads. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Not only was the die's choice to get me directly to Luang Prabang necessary for me to develop context for our trip to the Plain of Jars, it was essential for slashing red tape and probably kept me alive.
“These are completely shot. I can't believe you didn't ruin your disc,” Greg says, running a finger over the disc that my nonexistent brake pads had been resting on. “Feel that little ridge there? If you'd ruined them, you'd be able to really feel it.”
Greg is a legend. An adventure motorcyclist with more than 1,000 rides under his belt, as well as a reformed meth-user, Greg is my guardian angle in Luang Prabang. He sought me out after seeing Rocinante parked next to his KTM adventure bike. He helped me sort out extending the temporary import permit and now he's teaching me how to change the brake pads on Rocinante. In return, I end up scaring the shit out of him on my “test ride”.
(Full story here.)
There should be a punishment for doubting the dice. Of course, not following the Die's Will is impossible, but when I waiver and question its judgment, momentarily forgetting that the world is a big and mysterious and I am but scratching a well-worn place on its surface, there should be some sort of recourse. However, that's not the case. Instead, the die simply throws such doubt into my face.
It's late. It's cold. The die books me into this nothing motel in Nangtan. They don't have WiFi, and all they have to eat is a cup of instant noodles, which I pass on.
The cold air cuts into me as I pop back into town on the bike, wearing only my skimpy shorts and t-shirt. It's a lovely cold. The restaurants that seemed open when I passed 20min ago are now closing, one shutter of two pulled down, like the eyes of an old man in a big comfy chair losing a battle with sleep, despite the Superbowl playing on the big screen in front of him.
Past Nangtan Lake, I pull up a small dirt road. A sign out front of a little place with its lights still on says “Coffee”. A group of six people are the only ones sitting around one of the four tables in the restaurant. Maybe they serve food. Then again, it looks like this is a post-closing staff dinner party.
Red-faced man, Sam, pulls me from behind my table and grabs a chair for me to join him and the rest of the group at theirs.
“Vietnam,” he says, pointing to his thin-faced friend, the younger man, Lang. “Vietnam, Laos and American, drink beer together. Friends.”
And so we did. Lang would fill the single tumbler one third to halfway up with Beer Laos then pass it to the next person in the circle, who would down it in a single gulp. With a snap of the wrist, Sam, would send any beer leftover down onto the floor and Lang would fill the glass up again.
Bottle after bottle appeared full and then disappeared under the table empty.
Eat, drink and make merry, I think. Even if that includes eating dog.
(Full story here.)
The die keeps me on tract, not allowing me to visit the Spoon Village on my first or second day in Phonsavan.
The giant stone jars were carved from bedrock found at a nearby quarry. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli
The first day the die doesn't even open the doors to the Plain of Jars Archaeological sites (story here). My goal is to explore the area around the stone-age artifacts that were created by some civilization lost in human history. However, between my inability to navigate, Laos inability to clearly mark attractions and the die's general attitude of doing whatever the fuck it wants, the regions namesakes would not come underfoot today.
It's the next day that we find ourselves steeped in the remnants of ancient and modern history.
The green patches are bomb craters. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A spooky feeling creeps in as I carefully walk between the cement markers leading up the hill. The red paint has entirely worn away, while the white paint is chipping. However, the word “MAG” impressed into the marker is clear. Each pair of the dozens of markers that cover the grassy hilltop signifies where the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) detonated or cleared an unexploded ordinance. A total of 26 UXOs were cleared from the site. However, a sign at the base of the hill reads: YOU ARE ADVISED TO STAY BETWEEN THE WHITE MARKERS.
I, of course, didn't read that part of the warning.
A total of 93 giant stone jars liter the top of the grassy hill like the Greek gods' discarded shot glasses. The tall, roughly carved artifacts are coarse to the touch. It's easy to understand why people believed that the stone jars were baked in a kiln due to the nature of the rock, which is so consistent and chalk full of pebbles. The rock is in fact a quarried conglomerate, calcified river sediment. Laying near some of the jars are large flat discs that one might mistake as lids, though evidence suggests they too are burial markers, these are made from a smoother sandstone.
The rough jars have filled with rain water, and sometimes trash. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The cluster of jars is protected by a handful of small, twisted trees, or perhaps a cluster of small, twisted trees are protected by the jars.
The jars, big enough to hide in, stand off-kilter. A few stand up right, while many more are on their sides, or leaning heavily in one direction or another. Those that have not been cracked open by weather or war have started to fill with rain water. The water's surface nearly glows a bright green from something similar to Duckweed floating on its surface. In addition to the algae and marine plants, a few of the jars have pieces of candy wrappers thrown into them.
(Full story here.)
My skin tingles at the sound of a bomb explosion hitting me from one side, bouncing of a nearby hill and echoing back into my soul. I am, of course, safe. I'm on a well-worn dirt road and have yet to cross any roped off areas that are being cleared of unexploded ordinances (UXO). Despite the certainty of my safety, I have a sense of needing to proceed with caution, to which I am unaccustomed. Fear like a faded shadow keeps my tires directly where others have most recently been, their tracks clear in the mud.
I am safe. I know I am safe. What about those who aren't? What about those who aren't safe and know they aren't safe? What about those who have to face the dangers of the UXO on their farmland or face the certainty of starvation?
The fear people must feel as they till their fields knowing, knowing that the area is contaminated with with bombies and other deadly explosives is not something a person can intellectualize. It is a fear that your body, mind and soul can only know through experience. Without the daily experience of facing the uncertain immanence of your death, you cannot know this fear.
Maybe I should turn back.
Then again, there have been no ropes. I've not crossed any ropes and I am on what usually passes as a road in Laos. I should be safe.
Moments later, I stumble onto the outskirts of a village. At the head of a cow path, with a cow and her calf appropriately standing there, is a sign set up by MAG. The calf sniffs the little red sign before ripping up a some grass near its base.
There is a sign at the first house with someone's name and “make spoon” written below it. However, the house is deserted. The next house is not.
It too has a metal sign. Though this one, which read “Mr SomeMy. Make spoon”, is hanging haphazardly from an enormous rusted bomb buried into the ground next to their bamboo fence.
I stop the bike in front of the bomb.
Make spoons, not war, declares Laos village. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Behind the fence, a couple meters below road level, is a flat short-grassed yard, a tall wooden house on stilts and four posts holding a high roof over a homemade brick kiln.
The woman at the far side of the kiln, opposite her husband, waves me down. Her son, slides the bamboo poles at the fence's gate clear so I can join them by the kiln.
Seated on the ripped off seat cushion of a scooter, the woman pulls a ladle of piping hot liquid aluminum from the center of the kiln and pours it into a tiny hole of a spoon mold. Next to her is a large pile of the glistening spoons. Another pile of hot spoons are being laid out in a row by her husband, who is also filling a mold with molten aluminum. On one corner of the kiln is a pile of disarmed bombs. Among them is the baseball sized BLU 26B, one o the most common UXO found in Lao. There would be 670 of these bombies contained in one dispenser casing, like the one Mr SomeMy's sign is attached to. Each of the 670 bombies contained explosives with 300 steel pellets inside them, giving each of them a killing radius of about 30 meters. Also on the kiln were the tails from a couple land-based mortars.
The spoon village, Baan Naphia, reaches out to the world with the slogan: Make Spoons, Not War.
(Full story here.)