Trials & Tribulations of Travel

28 Jun

Color photo of a long boat on the Mekong River

As I write this I am at hour 7 of my second day traveling up the Mekong River by long-boat.  This mode of travel should be more appropriately titled SLOW boat.  I’ve estimated that we are moving at a pace of about 5-10 miles per hour.  Yesterday, with an overflowing boat, it took us over 10 hours to travel less than 100 miles.  All I can do is sigh and take a deep breadth… I am just so not used to this pace of life.  I’ve found myself totally conflicted by the rat race I run everyday at home in Washington, DC.  This really is the slowest I’ve moved in a days time in the past 6 years.  I guess if nothing else can get me to slow down and relax, well Laos certainly can.  And quite simply I don’t have a choice so I had better pull my head together and suck it up.  And in coming to terms with the fact that I have another 5 more hours to go in this long & slow boat better leave it with my favorite anecdote – in life there is a reason for everything.

Color photo of man rowing a dug out canoe

So why have I taken a 20+ hour slow boat journey up the Mekong River in the first place?  For one, I didn’t know this when I purchased the boat ticket two days ago but it really wouldn’t have had made a bit of difference if I had known, I would have had to travel this distance (and this slow) no matter what.  I suppose if I had known how long this would take I would have mentally prepared myself, brought water & food – and I certainly would have arrived at the boat launch well in advance so we didn’t have to [literally] push and shove to get seats on the boat.  It was so overloaded with people, motorcycles, sacs of rice, produce, bicycles, and everything in between that there weren’t enough seats on the boat for all the passengers.  Some of the long boats even carried goats, chickens, and ducks on the roof.  Though luckily we did manage to get seats, even if it meant sitting three people to 2 seats in hot and humid weather.  Let me tell you how fun this was! [sarcasm] And well actually I really didn’t have it as bad as some.  I had a seat next to a Dutch backpacker which lead to some good conversations that helped to pass the time.  But that wasn’t the only entertainment we had for the 10 hours.  The majority of the boat passengers were young (ages 20-30) Lao traveling from Luang Prabang to their homes in rural villages that are scattered along the edges of the Mekong River.  Most of them were quiet and reserved.  Some traveled as boyfriend-girlfriend couples.  While some groups of girls played card games and giggled for hours.

Then there was the back of the boat.  Now that is where all the “action” was – or however much “action” there can possibly be on a jam-packed wooden boat that is barely 9 feet wide.  But it did lead to the highlight of the day.  In the back of the boat there were a few young Laos (guys and gals) drinking the one and only BeerLao – for over 10 hours, laughing, eating sticky rice, and simply trying to have a good time.  Next thing I knew I turned my head to look at what the ruckus was and there in the back of the boat was one of my good friends (who I’ve been travelling with) hanging out with a glass of BeerLao and attempting to communicate with the half-drunken group in the back.  And well, this all lead to ongoing entertainment for the rest of the trip.  As the hours went by, they all continued to guzzle down BeerLao towards a drunken stupor.  I didn’t join them because I was on the verge of the infamous traveling “stomach bug” – if you know what I mean.  But every few hours we all had to “pay our dues” and visit the loo in the back of the boat.  Let me share with you a vision of the “loo” on the slow boat.  You push open a rickety wooden door and inside the door are a pair of old plastic sandals.  You leave your shoes outside the bathroom and slip on the wet nasty plastic sandals.  The floor inside is old & weathered ceramic with a small oddly star-shaped opening cut into the wooden side of the boat so you have some light.  A few pairs of old mens’ underwear and a womans’ bra is draped over a basket with used toilet paper.  Then there is the lovely Asian squat toilet. [sarcasm, again].  It’s a ceramic square with a hole in it – you peer down and you see the river water down below.  Now its time to test this interesting device.  You carefully squat, ensuring you keep your balance as the boat sways back and forth)and aim into the hole.  Meanwhile a concoction of river water and urine sloshes around your feet, and if you have bad aim your urine will join the rest of the sloshing mix.  A plastic grocery bag filled with traditional Lao herbs hangs on a rusty nail in the corner, attempting to curb the noxious aroma of urine and poo.  Be very careful not to lose your balance, or else you will fall either into the Asian toilet or the nasty liquid mess.  Another good reason to avoid drinking too much BeerLao on the boat.  Well I am pleased to report that by the end of this journey I did in fact “master” the Asian squat toilet.

The Asian Squat Toilet on the boat looked kind of like this, but this one is actually a bit nicer.

This boat trip has proven to be yet another test in patience.  Making me slow down and deal with all the discomforts that are required to travel & experience some of the most incredible and untouched places on Earth.  It’s a test in staying strong and remaining graceful amidst shear discomfort.  We passed through several rainstorms along the river.  And down come these heavy plastic curtains along all the sides of the boat – our long slow boat is now a makeshift sauna.  I can feel the sweat build-up on the backs of my legs that are pasted to the vinyl boat seat.  How [not] refreshing!  This is a test of grace for my mental strength.  DEEP BREATH.  But it wasn’t all bad – there was the occasional breeze from time to time that reminded us of how beautiful the Mekong is.   I look beyond it and admire the glorious Lao scenery.  And much to my delight I did spot one lone Elephant playing along a sandy shore.  Laos is “the land of a million elephants” and my singular elephant sighting was gratifying.

Color photo of the elephant I spotted

I’m now at cumulative 19 hours on this river journey.  My thoughts slip away from me.  I reflect on my life back at home, at what I will do when I return.  While some people count sheep I think about my happy puppy eager to take me on a long walk in our neighborhood.  I ponder some different tactics on a couple of projects at work, some new solutions come to mind and I jot them down.  And before I know it I am back in the present, living in the moment.  Though, I have to admit, this long-boat ride was also good for me to reflect on all these things.  It reminds me of how much I have to be grateful for in my life and how much I love & cherish my small family back home.  And remind us all that the experience of travel, as I define it, is not all the glitz and glory we often envision it to be.  And with that my mind goes back 10 years to my past adventures, far more challenging and uncomfortable, especially when I was “adventure travel fresh” and naive.  I remember the time when I was barely 20 years old and I decided to take a cargo boat (almost the size of a ship) for 27 hours non-stop across Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua) to the mouth of Rio San Juan.  There were not even such things as seats on this boat – it was a true cargo ship.  Just a metal boat deck loaded with sacks of produce: melons, guavas, mangos, and breadfruit to call home for these 27 hours.  I rested my body across the bags of melons for what felt like eternity.  It rained heavily throughout the night and there was no roof on the boat deck.  I attempted to cover myself with the a thin layer of polyester from my travel hammock – and at some point I just accepted the fact that there I was and I was going to be wet.  The rain did provide a sense of relief from the oppressive daytime heat.  I can’t forget to mention that this entire time I had a bad stomach virus from drinking bad water several days prior, that progressively got worse during these 27 hours on the cargo ship.  [Most of you who have really traveled know what I mean by “stomach bug” – aka dysentery] Was there a bathroom on the boat equipped with so much as an Asian squat toilet?  Hardly!! Just a closet with a hole through the floor that went to the water.  The men on the boat just peed over the side, and I of course as a woman could not do that.  It was a trying 27 hours to say the least.  So worth it in the long run – Rio San Juan was beautiful, San Carlos, and El Castillo de la Concepcion were all incredible and mostly untouched places.  I feel so lucky having experienced these wonderous places before they get overrun with commerce and tourism.  And well, I am just so grateful that while on the Mekong River in Laos I am not sleeping in the rain on bags of melons and I don’t have a full-blown stomach bug.

Color photo of children playing on the Mekong

In this moment of new-found gratitude [and hopefully an ounce more of grace] for this long and SLOW journey I embrace the moment as I arrive at the Laos side of the border with Northern Thailand.

Color photo of the moon rising over the Mekong River near the Laos-Thai border

One Response to “Trials & Tribulations of Travel”

  1. Mummy September 10, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    Amazing story and experience.

    Mummy

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