Saturday, June 04, 2005

Granny Dealers

If you want to visit a country where you can get around easily, hassle-free and in comfort then forget Laos and go to Argentina instead. My first bus journey here was a real baptism of fire. It's less than 200km from Huay Xai, on the border, to Luang Nam Tha, so when I read that the journey should take 9 hours I thought someone was pulling my leg; and indeed they were as the trip took 12 hours instead! Of course the road is unsealed and windy, but I knew the trip would be special when we first broke down. The driver rummaged around in the engine; pulled out a deformed, yet important-looking, rod; then proceeded to fix it by setting up an impromptu smithy by the side of the road with a little fire, a hammer and a handy stone as an anvil. The other passengers were nonplussed by the DIY reparations, taking it as par for the course, though it did seem rather alarming to me. Still, he got it fixed and the engine troubled us no more. An hour or so later and it had started to rain (did I mention that the monsoon season has begun here?), the water mixing with the dirt to form copious amounts of thick, sticky mud. Needless to say, a fully laden bus (a point I'll get back to later), driving up a steep incline, in the mud, is just not going to get anywhere. There was only one possible solution. So everyone got off the bus into the pouring rain, the men pushed, the unfortunate ones getting splattered by the uselessly turning wheels or slipping and falling in the miasma, the women stood by watching, each and every one of us barefoot (there's no point getting your shoes dirty too). Finally we made it, though at one point I honestly thought we'd either have to turn back or spend the night in the bus (neither of which are unheard of here). At least I was rewarded with the spectacular scenery of northern Laos: impossibly steep mountains shrouded in clouds and covered in lush forests (except where it has been cleared for agriculture).

Lao buses seem to have Tardis-like qualities (for non-Brits wondering what a Tardis is I recommend you watch an episode (or two) of Dr Who) by being able to squeeze in immeasurably more people than one would think possible. This is partly due to the fact that they don't even have enough legroom for a leprechaun, but also because the aisles are overflowing with boxes and bags of all descriptions. Just getting to your seat is a mission of not inconsiderable proportions. Even the VIP buses, coaches with the double luxuries of a modicum of legroom and air-con, don't escape this fate. They're always overbooked, but instead of turning passengers away little, plastic stools are placed in the aisle for the ultimate in comfort travel. Tough I shouldn't complain really as they are being environmentally friendly by maximising the space available. So if any of you are planning to travel in Laos here's my advice to you: get to the bus (at least 1 hour) early; find a decent seat; sit in it; and don't leave it until you reach your destination.

Talking of destinations my last one here was a town called Meung Sing, right in the northwestern corner of Laos. This small area (smaller in size than London) is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them originally from the mountains of southern China and Tibet (ethnic Laos prefer the low-lying valleys of the Mekong). The area is also part of the Golden Triangle, famous for its opium production, a fact which became evident as soon as I stepped off the bus and was surrounded by a swarm of grannies. You could tell they were all from hill-tribes as they were wearing traditional costumes and had the classic gory smile that comes from years of chewing betel nuts. At first I thought they were just selling bracelets, but then I noticed that they were surreptitiously pointing to little plastic bags of opium hidden underneath, as well as wads of hash in their embroidered shoulder bags. However it is a bad idea to buy drugs here as a common scam involves the seller going directly to the police and getting a cut of the consequent "fine".

I managed to find two people who were interested (a German nurse who used to work for MSF and a French guy called Steve) and together we hired a guide to take us to an Akha Pouli hill-tribe just 5km from the Chinese border. Although we were there for only a day and saw only a fraction of their lives it was still an eye-opener. Their lives must have changed but little over the past 1000 years. Domestic animals (pigs, cows, water buffalo, dogs, chickens) have free reign of the place; dirty little kids climbing about everywhere; basic houses made of wood and bamboo; and the classic division of labour that I seem to notice in all the traditional societies I've witnessed so far: women toiling in the fields, collecting firewood, looking after the kids, cooking meals and the men sitting around shooting the breeze (I exaggerate perhaps, but the women do seem to have a disproportionately larger share of the burden of work than the men).

This leads me nicely onto my little thought for the day. In the West people who deal in such anthropological matters say that we should maintain as little contact with remote tribes as possible so that they can keep their traditions. But is that what the tribespeople themselves want? If they were given the choice between the severe manual labour required to eke out an existence in the mountains and the lives we lead, I'm sure there would be more than one trading in their picks and shovels for Playstations and microwaves. Who are we to say what is best for them? And this could apply just as well to our own societies: if no-one wants to learn Morris dancing any more should we see that as a cause of concern, or just the natural order of things? Perhaps our view of traditions is too nostalgic and rose-tinted, or perhaps we're just afraid of what the future may bring.

P.S. If you've made it this far: well done and thanks for bearing with me. Unfortunately Laos is not as well developed as Thailand and so internet access is not only patchy, but rather pricey as well. Therefore my posts here may be slightly more infrequent and also a bit longer.

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