Utopia

You know, John says, maybe what you’re feeling is just loneliness.

He describes himself as a traveling English teacher and carries a mat-like souvenir that he keeps tripping over as he gets his vegetarian plate in the street food alley. He can’t understand why I might take up the invitation to go to a hill-tribe village with Sompai, a Lao guy I met yesterday. They always have ulterior motives, he says. And . . . and you’re a woman . . .

In Luang Prabang, soft bells tinkle along a dirt road to another temple, more gold and bright green in the sun. Locals sit laughing in groups as they mix scoops of red into bowls of noodles—that’s where I really want to be, but there’s no way in. So I just buy bananas from my favorite corner shop where the owner lives in the back with his wife and kids. They wake him up from his hammock nap to accept my Kip and smile. Young boys playing with a ball in the street greet me with Bye-Bye! as I pass—simpler that way, one step instead of two. Paths wind around to trinket stalls down one brightly lit alley while the rest of the town goes dark, days wind down to perfect completion one after the other. I’ve been here for a week, already wandered out to the nowhere that lies outside most Southeast Asian towns: gas stations, big warehouses selling parts, blasting unfiltered sun. Back in town, the same services are advertised outside every kiosk: air-conditioned buses to Nong Kiaw, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Savannakhet, Hanoi. Hill-tribe tour: one day trekking, one day homestay, one day elephant riding. I want to go further here before I let myself move, but this three-part tour package doesn’t seem like the way in. I stop at Sompai’s kiosk to ask about a bus ticket north. He’s from a hill-tribe not on the tour circuit, he’s going there in a few days to visit his family, would I like to go with him, only me, only 50,000 kip? I can see you are looking for something different, he says.

John recommends that I seek out spiritual centers in Mexico and gives me lessons on dealing with negative energy, hoping this will help me not to go. Breathe in peace and light, breathe out fear and loneliness. Breathe in, breathe out. His breath is audible, almost a hum. I watch his chest rise and fall, not saying anything. He widens his eyes at me.

You know, when I first started doing this, I got a huge boil on the back of my neck!!!

He widens his eyes wider. Outside, a tuk-tuk driver asks where we’re going.

Can you believe these people?!

John sounds stricken, almost hurt. They’ve got the tourism bug, bad. It’s going to be just the same if you go up to the hill tribe. There are no pure places anymore.

It’s the way the air cools from the back of a motorbike.

The way the mountains slant.

Have you ever tried goat meat? Sompai asks me.

No, not yet.

It’s completing a turn. New mountains. You forget to realize at what point you are now in them.

Learn to turn with it, the turning-again not turning-away.

The turning way. Learn to lean.

Then low thatched huts on either side of the road. Busy chickens, clean sunlight, untainted blue. How do you feel? Sompai asks me. Many people are sitting on the dirt floor of the hut where his family lives—maybe the whole village. One of the chickens is killed and strings are tied around my wrists. Everyone starts chanting. Sompai says that they are watching me because they’ve never seen a foreigner before. He tells me to link arms with him and we drink rice wine out of a barrel through a wooden straw. This will make us to be more close, he explains. His mother is silently throwing up into a bowl and the children take turns fanning her with a bamboo fan. She moans a tiny, high-pitched moan. Sompai shows her some pills he brought from a pharmacy in Luang Prabang, but she waves them away angrily. We all eat barely cooked sacrificial chicken and some gristly pork that Sompai bought in an open-air market on the way here. Neither of his parents have looked at me since I arrived. They are not angry, Sompai reassures me. My mother and father didn’t go to school, so they didn’t learn how to have manners with people. I went to school, and my sister goes to school now. We are lucky. His sister has a long ponytail and skinny earnest arms. She steals glances at me without smiling. The village shaman shows up, wearing what looks like a safari outfit. He has the widest smile I’ve ever seen. He’s there to cure the sick mother but he just beams at everyone and rocks back and forth. Sompai looks at his mother and puts his hand to his chest. Heart problem, he says. No money for medicine.

We eat more: sticky rice, cooked cucumbers, crispy larvae that taste like potato chips. The wooden straw is passed around and we take turns drinking more out of the barrel. When Sompai and I are up, everyone giggles.

Did you bring the 500,000 Kip?

You told me it would be 50,000.

Ha ha, no, no, 500,000. We had to prepare a lot of things for you. We had to kill that chicken . . . it costs a lot to buy the chicken. Very expensive.

The room is starting to go soft at the edges. I look at the shaman and grin right back at him. His safari shirt has fallen open and he sits with his chest puffed out, eyes turned upward. This man, the shaman, he is very drunk. Sompai laughs. Someone will have to take him home. Very happy man, this shaman. The men try to talk to me in their language, and Sompai translates:

He want to know if you have a boyfriend!

He is disappointed.

He want to know if you will remember us when you go back to your village in America.

He mean, will you send money when he has his marriage ceremony! Ha ha ha!

The hut has two small floors connected by a ladder. Sompai and his family insist on giving me the top one, all to myself, to sleep. The four of them cram in the bottom. In the morning, his father makes us breakfast and his sister leaves for school.

It’s the way the air cools from the back of a motorbike.

The way the mountains slant.

It could be anyone in front and you’d still be leaning like this.

You could be anywhere and it would be the same turn in the road, the same turning.

It’s another kind of nowhere: the blank in-between-ness of travel.

The purity in the act of moving from here to there.

Sompai reaches back and puts his hand on my leg. Would you like to have goat meat together when we get back to Luang Prabang?

I remove his hand without saying anything.

I’m sorry, he says. I just want to make sure you’re okay. I hope you had a good time there.

Sompai’s village feels again like an impossible way in, like something I would wish for walking past signs for package tours and air-conditioned buses to somewhere else. I tell him to pull over at the next ATM. I get off and withdraw 800,000 Lao Kip, about 100 American dollars. He accepts it without thanking me.

That night I go with some other backpackers to a bar called Utopia. Soft reggae, soft cushions, tanned legs and mojitos, we could be comfortable here. Paolo organizes a volleyball game. Rotate left with each play, high-five and brilliant Brazilian smile—for me when I cower away from the ball, for Eife when she hits it over the net, for the two English girls talking about their hill-tribe tour.

It was just so lovely to get off the too-rist trail for a bit . . . mix with the locals!

Paolo smiles brilliantly at me.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

My mojito tastes pure and cleansing. I chew hard on the mint. Rotate left. High five. Beautiful! In Axel’s French accent, the word sounds like what it is. He’s planning to buy a boat from some Lao fishermen and take it down the river into Cambodia. I know eet eez leetle beet…dangerous? But, you know, I was so happy, I meet zis Lao guy, a Buddhist, a monk. I ask him to bless ze boat . . . zen I say Fock it, I go. Katie repeats this line to me all evening, throwing her arms wide. Fock it, I go. Fock it, I go. She wants my advice, should she go with him? She knows about rivers, she grew up around rivers. The thought of the two of them alone on the Mekong. But she’s going back to Australia in a week. Fock it, I tell her. Utopia is closing, we’re outside on the path again—the overgrown stepping stones that lead to light and music from the darkened town.

“Utopia,” from the Greek ou-topos: no-place, nowhere.

There are no pure places anymore.

Soon, the tuk-tuk drivers are congregating again. Disco? Bowling? Disco? Bowling?

Tanned legs are jiggling, bare defiant bellies want to know, do we have to go just yet, we went bowling last night, isn’t there anything else?

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