28.03.2010 - 29.03.2010
Still at Sae Lao project in Nathong village, I decided that it was time to touch base with the world and set foot into town for the first time in almost a week. I set about buying some snacks for the kids and a few chocolate bars for us volunteers after Gwen and Phil spent a couple of hours the previous night talking about the confectionery they missed from back home, like it was long-lost memory from their childhood. Next, I purchased a bus ticket for tomorrow, which would take me to Vientiane- the nation's capital. Straying from the path somewhat, I dropped into a pizzeria in town. 'Do you do happy pizzas here?' I asked. 'Yes, you can choose any one and I will put the happy on it. Do you want happy shake as well?' I thought for all of a split-second. 'Err, yes please.' I said and decided not to dictate the flavour for fear of upsetting the balance. I chose a table in the empty restaurant and sat down. In Laos, when the term happy comes before pizza, shake, brownie or just about any other foodstuff served here it doesn't mean it comes with a smiley face. All I knew was that it contained the additional ingredient of marijuana- a misunderstood substance if ever there was one- and that it supposedly made you fly a bit. All part of life's unique experiences I thought. I wasn't an addictive or habitual person and generally knew my limits when it came to life's indulgences. I made the decision as an level-headed adult, and as a person on a journey of discovery. I wasn't shooting up heroin in the streets. The unmistakable smell of grass wafted from the kitchen. Not knowing how many additional ingredients there were, and also what they were put me in a slight dilemma when it arrived with mushrooms on it. Now ordinarily I don't eat fungus, but this was a happy pizza- were they par for the course, or were they extras? Bottom line- I ate the mushrooms. I scoffed the pizza and finished the shake slow enough not to get indigestion and just fast enough to get back to the village before the effects kicked in. I jumped back on the borrowed motorbike and rode the seven kilometres back down the stony road, avoiding all the big rocks, and across several extremely narrow and rickety bridges- one of which crosses the Nam Song river to the West of town. One thing I was happy about was not falling twenty feet into the river while riding the motorbike across its uneven and loosely-planked surface.
I brought the bike to a stop in the front garden of Sae Lao, getting back onto my feet and feeling that my balance was already mildly compromised. I walked over to Khan Kéo who was sitting in the open-air bamboo dining room, and in one of our many broken conversations we 'talked' about the bus ticket I had booked for Vientiane, using mime and the few words that I knew she understood, which you might be able to count on all your digits if you took your shoes off. By this time during my stay at Sae Lao I'd bonded well with Khan Kéo. We had an English lesson every night, right after we ate dinner, there in a circle, around the low bamboo table on the living room floor of the family she stayed with. They ate and muttered amongst themselves and then spoke to me whenever they wanted to ask about an English word they were curious about, or to ask about my job and yearly wage and about how they wanted me to marry Khan Kéo, despite us never having held hands. It had all been quite innocent and child-like, but they seemed intent on marrying her off to the nearest falang.
I sat there in the dining room opposite Khan Kéo, she was visibly saddened by my commitment to leave and held the bus ticket like a police fine, with brewing contempt. But every expression Khan Kéo showed, she showed with marvellous honesty of feeling and with gentle motion. I was sure that she'd never scorned anyone, instead taking life's injustices as just that- a part of life, and smiling on gently with a strong-will and a loving heart.
The moment was sombre. For the past few days I'd genuinely considered how I might stay, and what would happen to me if I did. I was sure life in Essex wouldn't be any more fulfilling. Would I fit in? I could learn Lao, I was sure I could live without the luxuries I was used to in occidental society, I also knew that should it go that way I'd be lucky to have such a diligent and sweet girl as Khan Kéo, and I treasured her fondness for me for all that it was worth.
I began smiling at all the wrong moments. I covered those first few smiles with well-placed secondary expressions and gestures. Oh God, not now, the pizza was kicking in. At a time when I should be showing respect and consolation I was grinning widely like I'd just farted in a lift; thankfully she didn't appear to notice. I felt the nip of a mosquito on my arm and I scratched at the red bump already forming. Go, and go now, I felt a voice say to me from inside my own head. Before you undo this beautiful friendship and offend the poor girl. My mind was warping. I couldn't concentrate fully and my perception of time in conversation was hanging tenuously on a thread of my own paranoia. I scratched again at the bite, this time overly-dramatically, 'I have to go, I have to go and put some mosquito cream on, I'm getting bitten' I said beneath a pained brow and gesturing thoroughly to aid her understanding. I stood up, trying not to show my gravitationally-challenged head and walked out of the dining room. I immediately felt terrible for having gotten up like that and wondered what I might do to prevent offence. For now, I just had to get back to the cabin. About twenty paces from the dining room was a narrow plank of wood which crossed a six-foot ditch, I crossed it everyday to get to the cabin at the back of the field. How was I going to get across this without looking like I was drunk or high, or worse, without falling tragically? I knew I was still in her eye-line, and having gotten up so unexpectedly she would surely be watching. I slowed and put one foot in line with the wood, I took the first step and then prayed like hell the rest would follow. I could neither judge nor see straight, but somehow I made it across in four tentative steps. The one or two minute walk down the well-trodden dirt path began to feel like a day-long marathon, and my mind played sections of that path over and over, making me feel like I was stuck on a journey backed by a theme tune of vaguely familiar music that skipped like a scratched record. At some point in time and space I made it back to the cabin, where Trebooks- one of the French volunteers- was sitting in a hammock out front. As I approached that place I convinced my mind that I wasn't high, I felt my vision phase itself from one dimension and into another, more real and vivid that the first. The transition was like staring into one of those magic-eye posters, so popular in the nineties, but soon enough my eyes fell back into the swirling madness. I stared at him with a helpless grin. 'I'm....I, I'm so high right now, I'm tripping' I said, followed by an exhalation of breathy laughter. He looked back at me, I'm sure surprised at the declaration, but also visibly amused. 'What happened man?' I gathered my thoughts, which were now a few contorted remnants of thoughts and steadied myself to reply. As I spoke I heard myself as a third person, but with a slight time-delay as my drugged mind struggled to register what it was hearing. 'I went into town and had a happy pizza and a happy shake, I'm on a big trip right now, I need to lie down.' I said and I climbed the four or five steps onto the verandah and then walked into the cabin; my feet unsteady on a bamboo floor which seemed to be intent on felling me to the ground. I laid down on my patch of floor, thankfully it was distinctly marked out as an orange bed sheet covering a very thin mattress next to a line of all green ones. Once again I felt the bite of mosquitoes on my forearms and ankles. I grew paranoid that they were after me in droves. I grabbed at my sleeping bag rolled up in a neat pile at the foot of my bed and began to slither inside it in a manoeuvre which took several times longer than a sober mind would have managed, as all my brain functions responsible for coordination and concentration were now on vacation. Eventually I laid flat on my back inside the sleeping bag. I could see the mossies clear as day flying about my head so I pulled the toggle strings to close the head section over my whole face. Now I was lying there, motionless, only my eyeballs visible from the outside, not even the hint of an eyelid was showing. As I blinked, my eyelashes rubbed against the thinly woven material of the sleeping bag. The mosquitoes seemed to have got bored and left, either that or they were now inside with me. At that thought I began to scratch at my ankles in haste, the way you do when watching a nature programme about creepy crawlies; you know there's nothing there, but a physical sensation is the same whether its caused by something real or not, and so you scratch.
I stared up at the bamboo ceiling fifteen feet above my glaring eyes, and the formations of the supporting structures and the thinner bamboo strands seemed to change to a different scale within my perspective. Suddenly I was looking down at a great civilisation from above and each tiny section of bamboo became one of many perfectly symmetrical houses.
A series of banging sounds came from behind our sleeping hut. The innocent noise sparked my mind to create an epic. I was transported into what felt like World War I, as gunshots rang around my head and the faint battle cries of fallen heroes faded into a bloody scene of wounded bravery. All the time this was happening I never felt afraid. I knew it was not real, but I had no choice but to acknowledge the sounds that were being created around me and I reacted accordingly. More gunshots echoed from the battlefield. It felt like a bleached memory, or the midnight dream of an old veteran. My arms and legs began to flinch involuntarily. The scurrying sounds of men or creatures in the roof reached my ears. Everything was aural, I never saw a single apparition, the only tricks my eyes played on me were the distortions of perspective and the hint of something unseen. One thought came through the frantic scene clearer than any other- how could I get a message to Khan Kéo that I was unable to walk her home tonight? I felt desperate at the thought that she might be thinking I'd walked away from her because of our conversation. I couldn't get up from my horizontal position, my mind had put me in a straight-jacket of obscurity. The aural scenes continued to plague my mind and inside the sleeping bag my body knotted in a helpless fit of arms and legs. I never felt any pain, and still I was not afraid; just the disproportionate worry of abandoning my friend, which burst forward into my consciousness with every diffracted thought.
I drifted in and out of visual comprehension. Some time had passed, how much time- I didn't know, but I heard the voices of my fellow volunteers, some talking of the fact that I was riding high on a surge of mushroom-induced lopsidedness. I felt a shroud of relief that others knew about my state and that I didn't have to try to explain. I managed to voice a message to Becky, which again, I heard in the third person time-delay. 'Is Khan Kéo still here?'
'Yeah, are you OK?' I felt surprised that she was still around, and began to wonder of the time. 'I'll be fine, can you tell... her that I can't take her home tonight and I can't...give her an English lesson.' I shocked myself that I'd managed to speak. 'OK, don't worry, I'm sure she'll understand, what are you like!' she said, and my mind grasped at the peace that the short conversation offered me like an outstretched arm grabbing at any available surface before falling into a void of forlorn poetry.
Darkness surrounded me, but the sound of musical beats pulled me out of it and back to reality, or at least a bastardised form of reality. The evening had begun and my friends were preparing to relax at the end of another day. The vibe shifted as the music increased in volume and filled the room with smoothly flowing beats, each of which, to my mind, became a thousand-fold form of itself. I moved in time with the music. What were involuntary jitters before, were now semi-involuntary waves of euphoric expression. From the outside I would have looked like an unborn foetus struggling to get out into the wider world. But to me, I was riding the crest of an ecstatic wave towards conceptual enlightenment.
I woke a while later, feeling drained and weary. I heard sections of conversations around me but I lost time in between the details and couldn't respond with sober replies when the dialogue came my way. I emerged slightly from the sleeping bag. 'God, Adam you look terrible' came a voice from somewhere. 'I'm OK, just...yeah, feeling weird.' I hadn't yet gained my motor senses back in any of their original condition. Instead, as I propped myself up onto one arm, I felt groggy as hell. 'Do you want to eat something? Adam, you should probably eat something' said Becky from the opposite side of the room. 'You're white as a sheet. Don't worry about Khan Kéo, I told her you had an upset stomach.'
'OK, yeah...thanks.' I mustered, and then dropped back down to a torpid sleep.
'Adam...Adam....' called Becky some time later. 'They've made you something to eat, come on, you should come and eat something, they've made it now.' I struggled back onto my feet and straight away began to wobble. I walked with her and a couple of others over to the dining room, tackling the wooden plank again with equal, if somewhat lucky success. The dark of night was in full swing and the camp was deftly silent. Those first few mouthfuls were a real effort. Margo and Ben looked at me with slightly amused, but merciful eyes. I had been in the safest place over these last few hours and I felt indebted to my friends' care and attention. I got up and sat by the bamboo railing which hung over the pond; ready to reject the little food I'd eaten. 'Are you OK Adam?'
'I'll be fine, feeling very queasy though.' I got up again, knowing I couldn't keep the food down. I crouched by the bush and let the inevitable happen. The next thing I knew, I was hunched over behind the bush and began foraging around like a dog in search of something. All I wanted was some tissue to blow my nose, but I was acting like an animal disgusted by itself; hiding in the darkness.
The following morning I came to with a few scars of tainted recollections. It took the best part of a day before my head returned to normal. But still I managed to ride into town, with Aoi on the back and set my bus ticket back one day. Aoi had been with us from my arrival, she was older than the rest of us, and she was from Thailand. She took it upon herself to cook and clean for everyone, going about the duty with guile and unrelenting consistency.
So today, I would recover. We laughed at breakfast and again at lunch at my ridiculous position the day before. I was glad to see that Khan Kéo was fine with me and I tried to explain that my head wasn't right, without mentioning the word mushrooms or marijuana. Otherwise, the day went on with the usual village regularity. The toenail that had been damaged since the Nepal trek came so loose that I pulled it off, hoping another would grow in its place. I knew that soon enough, the other would follow and I'd be left nail-less on both big toes. Before the day ended, my senses had regained their usual form; I should have said no to the happy shake. The double-dose was a little excessive. But richer for the experience, and safe among my friends I laughed about it as a trip inside my own mind.
And so I left Sae Lao with a heavy heart. I knew the journey had to continue, and although I'd not been here for a significant time, I felt the resistance to leave as if I were one of Nathong's residents. I said goodbye to the friends I'd made, then squeezed onto the back of the motorbike and waved goodbye to Khan Kéo. 'I will miss you.' she said in one of her rare English-spoken sentences. And with that, I was gone, back down the tumbling road from where I came.