Monthly Archives: September 2015

rainyseason_header2

The Rainy Season: “this is our life, but we do not give up”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

28

I’m not sure who was more relieved—Soukpa, that I was in Laos, or me, that Soukpa was dressed in jeans and a nondescript blouse instead of the traditional skirt and blouse that she’d worn every day in Jakarta. I clasped my hands in front of my face and bowed. “Hello, Sabaidee. It’s good to see you again, Soukpa.”

Soukpa said, “I really happy you come Laos.” Eel-lee.

“Is this your brother?” A young man stood beside her, and if not for the age difference—Soukpa was mid-twenties, he was mid-teens—then he could have been Soukpa’s twin.

“My boy brother.”

He offered a strong grip and we shook hands.

Soukpa laughed and held her hands about two feet apart. “His name more than your student. I think you call him Pete. Is easy for you.”

Pete’s head was shaved. Maybe he was going to be a monk. I shrugged and said, “Okay, Pete. Nice to meet you.”

Pete wore jeans, tee shirt, and sandals. He smiled and said, “No English.”

“Me no Lao,” I said back, and we all laughed.

“You have more bag?” Soukpa asked.

I had my backpack and the carry-on size suitcase-on-wheels. The duffel bag was in a locker inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. “No, this is everything.”

Soukpa cinched a plastic trash bag around my suitcase. “It rain soon.”

I thought, soon? I was nearly drenched just from standing on the tarmac. I smiled and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa made a big O with her mouth. “So good!”

“Well, that’s all I remember. Hello and thank you.”

Soukpa cinched a second trash bag around my backpack. “I teach you more okay?”

“Sure. I’ll try to learn.”

Soukpa gave my backpack to Pete. “We go now.”

The arrivals hall was empty and quiet. No placard conventions in Pakse. Pete lugged both my bags, and I felt naked without my backpack. Just saying. The parking lot in front of the airport was also empty. A lone tuk-tuk was curbside with its driver asleep in the back, and I didn’t see any taxis. The sky was gray and a steady rain fell. I told Soukpa, “Thanks for picking me up. I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”

Soukpa smiled, but said nothing.

I was curious though. “When did you arrive in Pakse?”

“I worry it heavy rain so we come early.”

“You got here this morning?”

Soukpa shook her head. “Three day ago, after Indira call and say you will fly Pakse.”

Three days ago?

Three days ago I was planning painful deaths for Wallach and Mandiri. Three days ago I went to the Monas with Indira’s students. Three days ago … I gave Irma a piece of paper to give to Indira.

Was Indira’s faith really that strong?

I thought, maybe.

Probably.

Yes.

Soukpa’s motorbike was a black Honda. It had a few dings, but it was a Bentley compared with Pete’s bike-with-a-motor. Pete’s bike had a large frame—like an adult ten-speed—but his pedals were missing, and in their place was a two-cycle motor with just enough juice to trim your hedges. The motor and wheels were connected by two well-used fan belts. A sheet of corrugated aluminum was welded to the frame above the rear wheel. It made a platform that was handy for transporting items like my backpack and suitcase-on-wheels. Pete used twine to secure everything and then yanked the pull cord to start his engine. It took Pete a good three or four yanks before the engine coughed and spit its way to life.

I gave Soukpa my best “this is normal” face.

Soukpa gave an embarrassed smile in reply. “Sorry.”

“It’s actually kind of cool.”

Soukpa lifted the seat on her Honda and pulled a light jacket from the storage area underneath. “You will see more like it. I think you will be surprise what you will see in my country.” Soo-pies.

“Pakse is a lot quieter than Jakarta.”

Soukpa laughed, Indira-esque. “I almost die when I see Jakarta airport. Oh I feel so scare. I never see life so big. I never see many people or hear loud city. You will not find it here. Lao people are quiet. I think you like it here.”

I nodded and said truthfully, “It sounds great.”

Soukpa had the jacket on now, along with white cotton gloves and a cloth mask that covered her mouth and nose. “You ride with me okay?”

I thought, as if Pete’s bike is really an option…

I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa secured her helmet and asked, “You ready?” Her eyes were big and alive, and her voice was filled with excitement—the way she had been on the train to Bogor, as if this was a big adventure.

“I’m ready, but where are your bags?”

“Sorry?”

“You came three days ago. Where’s your stuff?”

“Oh, here.” Soukpa indicated the storage area beneath her seat. “Okay?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa. “Okay, let’s go.”

Soukpa sped onto the main road. Pete puttered along in our wake. The rain fell with slightly more urgency and the wind buffeted Soukpa’s jacket. In the distance I glimpsed the Mekong, and I thought about my dad. Maybe this felt like a big adventure, but in reality it was a struggle between life and death that began beside this same river more than four decades ago. Maybe it would end here as well.

The asphalt road gave way to red clay and we could have been in rural Georgia if not for the rice paddies and nón lá hats made famous by Vietnamese farmers and now ubiquitous to Southeast Asia. We shared the road with peasant farmers who used tractors to pull flatbed trailers piled high with fruits and vegetables. An open-air bongo truck filled with women and children sped past, going in the opposite direction, and I spun to take a second look because I didn’t believe it was possible to fit so many people into one vehicle.

“You okay?” Soukpa asked.

“Fine.”

“Hungry?”

I hadn’t eaten a full meal since yesterday afternoon with Indira’s family. “Yes, a little.” Up ahead was a roadside canopy with wooden tables, plastic lawn chairs and a fire pit. A few older women stood in the road and waved meat skewers at passing vehicles. No one seemed bothered by the rain. Fast food, Lao-style. “What are they selling?”

Soukpa began to slow the motorbike. “Meat.”

Well, okay…

Soukpa’s lack of specificity was a bit troublesome. I thought, chicken, beef, pork? Mystery meat? I said, “Maybe I can wait.”

“You sure? Can buy if you need.”

I noticed a man tending the fire pit. He was also urinating. I said, “It’s okay. I’m not that hungry.”

Soukpa sped up. “We almost there. Can buy food beside river.”

A few minutes later Soukpa left the main road and we began to bounce along a poorly grated clay and gravel secondary road. It led to an elevated berm with tall, wispy reeds, wild grass … and the Mekong.

“Here is river. We go boat now.”

There was a staggering amount of commerce taking place. A wooden U-shaped quay jutted into the river and tied alongside it were dozens of boats—square heads, freighters, fishing—and nearly all resembled the traditional wooden boats synonymous with French Indochina. A dozen smaller, flat-bottomed canoes with long-tail outboards cut swiftly through the Mekong’s turbulent current. As we got closer, I noticed little kids were piloting many of the canoes. A market of sorts was set up alongside the river. A lot of cargo was being carried back and forth between boats and bongo trucks.

Soukpa barely slowed.

She navigated through a crowd of people, down a steep embankment, and then eased the motorbike onto the quay. A freighter was moored at the far end. It might have been twenty meters long—about sixty feet. A wooden plank about fifteen feet long and maybe two feet wide led from the quay onto the freighter’s aft deck.

“Hold on.”

I thought, what else would I be doing? I could already picture us on YouTube. We would definitely go viral. Maybe even earn a Tosh.0 Web Redemption.

Soukpa accelerated…

Halfway across the plank began to sag. In front of us the freighter began to roll with the current. Or maybe it had been rolling already. I wasn’t sure, but I was a little worried. I glanced down, but I barely glimpsed the water because by then we were safely aboard the freighter.

Soukpa said, “I go pay.”

Soukpa climbed from the motorbike and made her way to an enclosed cabin where the ship’s crew was conducting its business. I took a deep breath and began to look for some shelter. A moment later Pete caught up to us. It sounded like he was riding a Weed Eater. He never hesitated, just drove right up the plank. I cringed, because my backpack held all my electronics … but Pete and my luggage arrived safely on the deck. I told him, “Different way of life.”

He smiled. “No English.”

Soukpa came back and I could tell something was wrong. “You okay?”

“I so sorry.”

“What?”

“It rain soon.”

I laughed. “It’s been raining this whole time.”

Soukpa shook her head. “It rain soon. Cannot take boat today. I so sorry.”

“What should we do then?”

“We find guesthouse okay?”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

Soukpa and Pete had a brief conversation and then we made our way back across the plank and onto the quay. A fast-minute later we were on the main road toward Pakse. I could see buildings ahead in the distance. I thought, a kilometer, give or take. Maybe three minutes on Soukpa’s motorbike. A steady rain had been falling, but now the sky had different plans. A brilliant cascade of electricity lit up the distant horizon. Fiery red streaks fell from the heavens and shook the earth. A far-reaching arc lit into a magnificent shade of blue as it danced across the Mekong’s turbulent waters. The sky had been gray, but now it shone brilliantly in reds, blues and pinks until finally, and suddenly … everything went dark. The world around us was eerily quiet, and ominous. It stayed that way for an exceptionally long beat. After which it began to rain.

29 

The Mekong itself could not have been more turbulent than the waters that flooded the road. Its clay surface was pulverized by raindrops the size of cherry bombs that fell with devastating velocity. If I had blasted the clay pointblank with a shotgun, that’s the image you need to understand how intensely the rain assaulted the earth. A streak of lightning gave us a reprieve from the darkness. It was reddish-orange, and close by, and the thunder chasing after it shook the whole world around us.

In that brief moment of light, I could see Pakse, maybe a hundred meters ahead … but I also noticed the water had nowhere to go—

“Soukpa, watch out!”

—and it swelled and gathered strength until it had only one option left: the water cascaded violently toward us and I feared we would be swept into the river and never be found or seen again. Soukpa struggled mightily to remain upright as the motorbike shuddered and its engine quit. In a matter of seconds the road had been transformed into a riverbed. My feet were under water. In fact the water was halfway to my knees. Soukpa desperately tried to restart the engine. It whined and spewed a mix of smoke and water. But it didn’t start. I quickly climbed from the motorbike and grabbed hold of its frame. I planted my feet in a wide, strong base, and lifted until the engine was fully clear of the water.

I said, “Try it now.”

Soukpa flipped the key and the engine sputtered to life. It raced for a quick three-count, and then it died again.

My feet began to slip, and I was losing my grip. “Hurry!”

Soukpa flipped the key a second time. The engine clicked, but wouldn’t start. She flipped the key one last time. Nothing at all. Soukpa jumped from the bike and we began to push it furiously against the oncoming and rapidly rising deluge. Soukpa glanced anxiously behind us. I did too. No sign of Pete. For ten long minutes we trudged toward Pakse. Maybe one hundred meters. For sure the slowest time anyone has ever run a hundred-meter race. And believe me, it was a race. The storm gave no sign it was abating.

Soukpa said, “You see tourist hotel?”

Ahead and to our right was a modern western-style hotel. It had a circular drive and a covered area for curbside drop-offs. “I see it.”

Soukpa and I began to push harder, but I don’t think we went any faster. All we did was breathe heavier. But at last we made it to the circular drive and higher ground. A slow-minute after that and we were safe beneath the front portico. Soukpa secured her helmet and motorbike and immediately went back into the storm.

“Soukpa, wait. Call Pete’s cell before you go back out there.”

Soukpa shook her head and kept walking. “He no have phone.”

I left my Birkenstocks on the sidewalk and peeled off my ruined socks, and then I chased after Soukpa.

The earth beneath my feet and a violent storm were not new experiences—after all, I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida with sixty lakes, forty churches, a solitary stoplight and a devastating hurricane season … and after surviving adolescence I’d gone to college in Oklahoma where new student orientation included a session called “Sirens & Shelters.”

And yet I was unprepared for Pakse.

It was difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction. The water stirred the clay, and as it flowed relentlessly through the streets it was shockingly cold and disturbingly blood red.

“Soukpa? I won’t be able to see you if you don’t slow down.”

“Please go more fast.”

“I can’t see anything and the electricity is out in these buildings. If there’s a live power line in the road, we’re dead. If there’s a curve in the road and we walk into the river, we’re dead.”

“Please.” Peas.

We trudged onward as debris raced by and brushed against our legs. I had a few thoughts about rats, diseases and tetanus. But mostly I thought about the Mekong, and how its muddy water had been blood red many times in the past. Soukpa began to shout something incomprehensible. It sounded about two feet long, and must have been Pete’s given name. No response. We came across a bongo truck stuck in the road. Three men sat in the cab—one was asleep, and the other two were smoking cigarettes—but the open-air bed was filled with women and children. Lao-style, perhaps. Though I didn’t see any better options. Soukpa spoke with a woman, but seemed discouraged by what she heard. No one else had seen Pete either. We came across an abandoned motorbike. No sign of its driver. The motorbike was on its side, and like a mighty boulder it made the muddy floodwaters into rapids. We left it untouched, and trudged onward. The rain fell in blinding sheets. I had no sense of time or distance, and no bearing for the road or hotel—and yet the river had a presence all its own. It was just out of reach, a few steps into the darkness.

Soukpa yelled her brother’s name.

No response.

An onslaught of debris pummeled my legs. Soukpa yelled some more. Then in the blood red waters we came across a bike. It was built like an adult ten-speed but without any pedals. It had a platform made with corrugated aluminum and a long strand of twine was twisting in its rapids.

Soukpa was seized with panic.

She yelled her brother’s name again, and again, and again.

Ahead in the distance a wispy shape took form. Pete emerged from the storm. He was lugging my backpack above one shoulder and my suitcase-on-wheels above the other. He waded toward us, against the current.

I lifted Pete’s bike.

We secured my luggage once more on the platform, and the three of us began to push.

30

The tourist hotel had a generator and its lobby was our lighthouse. It was surrounded by darkness, and water. My shoulders ached and my lungs burned. I had a rip in my jeans but no idea what caused it. My feet had a thousand cuts and scrapes and the rain beat against my face with such ferocity that I could not look skyward.

The world lit up again.

For a brief moment I could see Soukpa’s face. It was remarkably passive. We trudged onward, through a blood red river that should have been a road. I don’t know how long it took us to reach the hotel for the second time, but when we finally made it beneath the front portico I felt like collapsing onto the sidewalk beside my Birkenstocks. I shivered, and my legs and feet were numb.

“You are okay?” Soukpa asked.

I doubled over, hands on my knees. “I think so. You?”

Soukpa shrugged. “This is our life.”

When I asked the desk clerk for two rooms, Soukpa said, “We no have money. You stay here. We go guesthouse okay? Is more cheap.”

“Wallach is paying for it,” I lied.

Soukpa hesitated a beat. “It is okay?”

“One hundred percent.”

“Khawp jai deuh.” For lying and the room.

“How do I say you’re welcome in Lao?”

Soukpa laughed. “We say it bo-ben-nyung. It mean everything is good.”

“Bo-ben-nyung? It’s all good?”

Soukpa nodded. “It is Lao-style, our life. Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.”

“I like that. I’ll try to remember it.”

The rain was steady now—more melancholy than violent—and the sky had lightened considerably. Pete was on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed some tools and was tinkering with Soukpa’s motorbike, but so far the engine had made a few clicks but was steadfastly refusing to start. A group of men had gathered around to watch him work. They didn’t look like hotel staff or guests. I had no idea where they came from, but the scene was reminiscent of Jakarta. How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?

“Is Pete going to be okay?” I asked.

“He fine.”

“You rely on the motorbikes for a lot, don’t you?”

“For everything.”

“Pete looks frustrated. What will you do if he can’t fix it?”

Soukpa spoke confidently, “He will not give up.”

“I’d offer to help but…”

Soukpa laughed. “I think he have too much help already.”

“Is he good at fixing things?”

“It is his job in our village. Do not worry okay?”

“My grandfather was a great mechanic. He knew everything about engines.”

“He teach you?” Soukpa asked.

“He taught a lot of people—my mom and uncles, my brothers and cousins—and he even taught auto mechanics to high school students. He tried to teach me, but I never learned. My grandfather loved engines though. He had a big shop beside his house with engine parts everywhere. He would take old cars and restore them like new. The bodies, engines, interiors … everything. He also taught me to drive.” I thought for a moment, and then added, “I wish I had listened more. Maybe I’d be able to build or fix things.”

“You are okay?”

I nodded. “Jetlagged, not sad.”

Soukpa was confused. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“You are hungry?”

“A little, but mostly I’m just tired. I think I’ll go upstairs now. I’ll get cleaned up and probably just sleep.”

“I ask they send food to your room, okay?”

“Thanks.”

“I also ask they take your clothes and clean.”

“Even better.”

“Your computer is okay?”

“Don’t worry. The clothes inside my suitcase are wet but my computer and everything inside my backpack are dry. That reminds me though. I have a gift for you.”

Soukpa’s version of oh come on was the wide O her mouth made when she was surprised or excited. She made it now, and her eyes lit up much as the sky had done when electricity was dancing across the Mekong. “A gift?”

“It’s from Lucy.”

“Lucy?”

I gave her the Ziploc bag from my backpack. “Open it.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “Oh Lucy, Lucy.” Soukpa’s hands trembled as she unzipped the bag. When she saw the necklace, the tears fell freely across her cheeks. “It is so beautiful. I not have something so beautiful before now.” For a long moment Soukpa held the necklace tight against her heart, and then very carefully she put it on.

“Lucy still sings the song you taught her.”

Soukpa made the O again. “Really?”

Eel-lee?

“She sang it for me in English, too.”

Soukpa began to sway back and forth. She was dancing with Lucy again.

“Where did you learn a Christian song?”

Soukpa brought Lucy’s handmade cross to her lips and kissed it softly, and then she began to sway some more. “My mother teach me many song to help learn English.”

“The necklace you gave Lucy also had a cross.”

Soukpa nodded.

“Was it a gift from your mother?”

“My mother give to me when she come home after learn English in Vientiane.”

“I thought your family was Buddhist.”

“We are.” Soukpa wiped away her tears. She hesitated for a long beat, and then she added, “But my mother was Christian. Are you surprise?”

Soo-pies?

“Maybe a little, but it actually explains a lot.”

“You are Christian?”

“Yes.”

Soukpa fidgeted with her necklace. “Lucy and Indira are Allah.”

“I know.”

“I am Buddha,” Soukpa said, though this time she didn’t sound too sure of it. Soukpa swayed with Lucy one more time, and then she told me, “Thank you for come to Laos. My father will listen for you.”

“Soukpa, that afternoon at Starbucks—”

“No, no. It is okay.”

“Thanks. I am sorry though.”

“Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.” Just then Soukpa’s motorbike roared to life. The men that had been watching Pete work began cheering and clapping him on the back. With a triumphant smile, Soukpa added, “This is our life, but we do not give up.”

goodreads-badge-add-plus-71eae69ca0307d077df66a58ec068898

Ten Things I Learned on the Other Side of the World

Half-a-lifetime ago I boarded a Delta flight to Tokyo with an official passport as a U.S. government employee and a pamphlet titled “Good American, Ugly American” that I’d been instructed to read during the fourteen-hour journey.

I hadn’t even left U.S airspace yet when I had my first strange cultural encounter: footprints on the toilet seat. My pamphlet had a section on squat pots, but it never occurred to me that someone might not know what to do with a western toilet.

Since then I have visited schools in more than twenty countries and four continents, and along the way I’ve had more than a few strange cultural encounters. Here are ten things I learned on the other side of the world.

  1. “New York City taxi drivers are the best.” You might disagree, but consider: I fell asleep in a taxi in Seoul and woke up at the morning fish market as my driver was loading the trunk with the morning catch … and my luggage was in the trunk. In Jakarta, my taxi driver stopped at a mosque for evening prayer … and left the meter running. In Tashkent, my driver picked up multiple passengers, ran a few unrelated errands … and then delivered everyone in random order.
  1. “Ants cost extra.” In any American restaurant, if you find ants in your soup you’ll get a sincere apology and a free meal. In Laos, you have to pay extra if you want ants in your soup. Seriously.
  1. “Please do not stand on the toilet.” If you see this sign, then you’re probably in Central Asia. I think most travelers know it’s a good idea to carry a tissue supply and multiple bottles of hand sanitizer … but you might be surprised to learn that as tourism has opened up in Central Asia the number of western toilets in hotels and restaurants has also increased. Thus necessitating this sign for locals.
  1. “You need a passport for everything.” And I don’t mean the tourists. In many former Soviet republics the citizens are still unable to travel freely and they literally need a passport for even the mundane and routine: take a train? stay in a hotel? legally exchange money? visit the hospital? You need a passport. Many of these same countries also have “disputed” territories where citizens can’t go regardless of their travel documents—Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to name a few.
  1. “Run from the police.” I was taught to trust teachers and cops to help me if I was in trouble, and to be afraid of them only if I’d done something terribly wrong … but in many countries the only reason people strive to become police officers is so they can extort money from impoverished citizens.
  1. “Motorbikes are not allowed.” I think the word “ubiquitous” was formed just so we’d have a fancy way to talk about motorbikes in Southeast Asia where they are a necessary part of everyday life. But it’s a different story in Central Asia, where many cities have banned motorbikes because they’re too dangerous. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but instead of a cheap and convenient form of transportation the people are forced to flag down strangers in passing cars. These unlicensed cabs usually have unlicensed and unskilled drivers, who navigate haphazardly on poorly maintained roads with little or no regard for pedestrians, traffic laws or other vehicles. That’s much safer.
  1. “Welcome to the Land of the Not Quite Right.” King’s Burgers. Old Army. Veronica’s Secret. Lucci. CFC (Colonel’s Fried Chicken). Five-dollar Polo shirts. Three-dollar RayBans. There’s a reason the DVD you bought from the guy on the corner only cost thirty-five cents. It’s because every time someone stood up to get popcorn the guy filming with his Sony Handycam couldn’t see the screen.
  1. “Let’s grab lunch sometime.” I was visiting an orphan school in rural Vietnam and the teacher said “okay everyone let’s grab some lunch.” Some students ran into the fields, while others went to a nearby pond. They came back with potatoes and turtles, and the teacher made everyone soup. I think I learned to appreciate American schools a bit more than I used to.
  1. “Customer service hasn’t quite caught on yet.” In the heyday of the Soviet Union, people stood in long lines at the market to buy even the most basic items. Somehow the command economy mindset hasn’t completely let go in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Fun fact: some stores in Armenia still reserve prime parking spots for employees. In many former Soviet republics the currencies are so weak that coins are non-existent, bill denominations start at a thousand, and workers have little or no incentive to be customer-centric. A cashier who rings up your groceries and takes your money is doing you a favor. Would it surprise you to learn that some of the governments in these same countries use Gmail for their official e-mail accounts? I didn’t think so.
  1. “You can buy hepatitis-on-a-stick.” Seoul, Jakarta, Bangkok … find a market, and then find a street corner. Someone will be selling mystery meat. Maybe it’s chicken or beef. Maybe they just call it chicken or beef. But regardless they’ll cook it over hot coals on wooden skewers, and then sell it very cheaply to passersby. The people will eat it, and then very naturally they’ll drop the skewer sticks on the ground … so why do you suppose you never see skewer sticks on the otherwise rubbish-filled streets? But hey, you recycle at home, right?