An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot
Sleep came, eventually, but it was fitful and foreboding as my thoughts and dreams had too many visitors—and none had been especially pleasant. I wore my Birkenstocks sans socks—or as my oldest niece would say, “the way God intended”—and left the hotel at first light to explore Pakse on foot and dry ground. Pete was already on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed tools again and was tinkering with his bike-with-a-motor.
Pete shook his head. “No English.”
Pete grinned. “Bo-ben-nyung.”
The sun was reddish-orange on the distant horizon. It reflected brilliantly against turbulent waters that were once again confined to the Mekong. How long it would stay that way was anyone’s guess, but for the moment it was beautiful and serene.
The kind you could get used to in a hurry.
Laos is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Communists with a totalitarian mindset rule the tiny landlocked nation, and its people are isolated geographically, politically, and economically from the western world. Or said differently, the nearest Starbucks is in Bangkok. But I found Dao Coffee just up the street from the tourist hotel. I had my favorite breakfast—croissants with strawberry jam and English breakfast tea—and did my best to ignore the French architecture and ambiance. One street over I found the morning market with its stalls of fish, spices, fruits and vegetables. It was barely six a.m. but whole families were hard at work—dads, moms and kids. Cows, goats, dogs and chickens shared the streets with motorbikes, tractors and bongo trucks that ferried goods from the river.
The people were friendly.
I’d heard that about Laos, and it seemed to be true. Kids chased after me in the street, waving and yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!”
They mimicked Soukpa’s O when I said, “Sabaidee.”
A girl who might have been eleven or twelve was wearing sandals and shorts and an Angry Birds tee shirt like the one I’d seen in Lucy’s cubbyhole. The girl said, “Mister, you buy fruit. Okay?”
I thought about how long today’s journey would be, and I said, “Okay, show me.”
Her eyes lit up. “Here!” she said, and then took my arm and pulled me into the market. Some vendors had stalls with tables, while others sat on the dirt floor with blankets—but the girl led me to a corner near the back of the market where an older woman sat in a plastic lawn chair.
The woman stood and said, “Sabaidee.”
“Sabaidee,” I replied.
An assortment of fruits, vegetables and spices were in neat piles on a blanket. The girl asked, “How much you want?”
“Enough for three people on a long boat ride.”
“What kind you want?”
The girl laughed, and then she filled three shopping bags with enough apples, strawberries, grapes, bananas and tangerines to feed Noah and his family for forty days and forty nights.
“How much?” I asked.
The girl held up a calculator. It read: 15,000.
“Fifteen thousand kip?” That’s roughly one dollar and eighty cents. I gave the girl 50,000 kip and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”
The girl smiled and said, “Thank you, nice American.”
I noticed a beat-up motorbike against the wall. It was close cousins with Pete’s wheels. “Is that your motorbike?”
The girl nodded.
“How old are you?”
Older than I thought. “You know the tourist hotel beside the river?”
“I know it.”
I offered her another 50,000 kip and asked, “Can you deliver?”
Her eyes got big. “Take fruit hotel?”
“Yeah. Can you do that?”
The girl smiled and said, “Doi, doi, doi.” Half-a-beat later she had fired up the motorbike. The girl bleeped the horn, Indira-esque, and then she began to sway left, right, left through the crowded market. She bleeped the horn again and disappeared into the street.
I nodded to the older lady and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”
“Nice day,” she replied.
On the other side of the market I saw a small boy with a bamboo yoke across his shoulders. His arms were outstretched, like he was hanging on a cross. He used the yoke to carry baskets made from banana leaves and filled with fish.
I didn’t need a fish.
But I bought one anyway. A second boy had a rusty scale. My fish clocked in at one-point-two kilograms and it stank worse than putrid water. The boys wrapped it in paper, secured it with twine, and tied it off with a loop for a handle. Maybe ten years old and yet they’d already been doing this for a lifetime, with no end in sight.
I thought about Jakarta.
This area wasn’t as forlorn as the slums in Jakarta’s third ring, but it had a desperate feel nonetheless. I would have labeled it third ring, except I hadn’t seen a first or second ring. But maybe my view was too narrow. Pakse is the only “large” city in Champasak Province—and I write it “large” because its population is 80,000 give or take (Jakarta proper has ten million residents, and if you count Jakarta’s greater metro area—which includes places like Bogor—that number jumps to twenty-plus). Pakse doesn’t have Grand Hyatt, Tiffany’s or Gucci … but everything is relative. If Pakse was more economically viable than its surrounding areas, then Pakse was the first ring. If so, then the villages surrounding Pakse would be the second ring. You would need the river to reach the third ring. It would be the island villages downriver, near Cambodia, where Soukpa and Pete lived with their dying father. It was with that somber thought that I returned to the hotel and found Soukpa and Pete ready to go.
Pete’s bike-with-a-weed-whacker-motor was in a sullen and uncooperative mood. Pete yanked the pull cord and the motor spit a plume of misty, pitch-black smoke. He yanked the pull cord a second time and the motor whined for a beat and then quit. Pete was winding up for a third crack at it when the first men began to appear. They wore sandals and cotton slacks and frayed tee shirts like the ones my dad used for rags when he changed the oil in his old pickup truck. I have no idea where they came from. Pete’s shaved head glistened in the early morning light. Incessant rain yesterday, incredible heat today … that’s the rainy season, Lao-style.
Soukpa gave me a “what can you do” smile. “Sorry.”
“Bo-ben-nyung.” The men heard me and laughed in ways that would have made Indira proud. I asked Soukpa, “What does doi mean?”
“You learn new word? It mean yes.”
Pete yanked the pull cord one last time. The motor spit and whined and came to life, and then it quit. Pete and Soukpa had a short conversation, after which Pete took a length of rope and fastened one end to Soukpa’s motorbike. He climbed onto his bike, and held on tight to the other end of the rope.
“We pull him,” Soukpa said, needlessly.
I thought about Tosh.0. I said, “Okay.”
Soukpa laughed. “I think you really surprise what you see in my country.”
I thought about the dirt roads, pickup trucks and gun racks ubiquitous to backwoods Florida where I spent my childhood, and said, “It feels like home.”
Soukpa donned her gloves and mask, and then secured her helmet. “Today you see my home. You ready?”
I straddled the seat behind Soukpa, and said, “Doi, doi, doi.”
“I love fish,” Soukpa said. “Really good idea.” Eel-lee.
We sat on upside down buckets, but my backside had it good compared to the fish. Soukpa had stuck a metal skewer down its throat and out its butthole, and now it was being cooked over an open fire pit on the freighter’s deck. “I think I’ll stick with the fruit. Maybe some rice.” Soukpa had a basket of sticky rice. Whether she’d brought it from home or bought it in Pakse, I had no idea.
“You see mountain?” Soukpa indicated a picturesque peak to our right.
“I see it.”
“Is Thailand. My father family come from that mountain.”
“Your father is Thai?”
“And your mom was Christian.”
“Anything else I need to know?”
Soukpa thought for a moment, and her face grew serious. “My village is poor.”
“Yeah. I know. I’m sorry.”
“I think you believe me, but I not mean poor like Jakarta.”
It rain soon.
It’s been raining this whole time.
The air was hazy and humid, and dense. Not stupid, but suffocating. The river wended its way through jungle canopy and sleepy villages with Thailand on one side and Laos on the other. Its waters were clear and cool in the Tibetan Plateau, but in these treacherous floodplains its currents were muddy, dark, and with the sun at a certain angle, blood red.
Herons, egrets, pheasants, pelicans and even a falcon made their presence known. Someone had brought a dog onto the freighter, and the birds sent it into a frenzy. It was a golden mutt—a mix of lab and something I couldn’t identify—and it ran back and forth, bow to stern, barking and leaping at birds that were a hundred meters away. Beneath the surface was nearly one thousand species of fish—including dolphins, snakeheads, stingrays, perch, featherbacks, bass and catfish that tip the scales at seven hundred pounds. The Mekong has created two hundred million acres of biologically diverse habitats and is home to twenty thousand plant species, twelve hundred bird species, eight hundred reptile and amphibian species, and more than four hundred species of mammals—including elephants and the largest tiger habitat in the world.
I kept my feet in the boat.
Something I don’t always do in Florida.
The freighter delivered bulk cargo up and down the river. It was like a long haul trucker, with daily runs up and down I-95—but it also served as the Mekong’s version of a local courier service. The ship’s captain would sound a loud air horn and maybe thirty seconds later a canoe would sprint out from the shoreline and pull alongside to collect items someone had “ordered” from Pakse’s morning market. Money and small bags of goods were exchanged, and then we’d be on our way. Today the freighter had only seven passengers: me, Soukpa and Pete; a diminutive old man in bare feet, cotton drawstring pants, and a tattered tee shirt that billowed in the breeze; and a young mother who looked exceedingly sad, maybe mid-twenties, with her children, a boy and a girl.
Soukpa blanketed an area on the foredeck with banana leaves. She peeled tangerines and bananas and then used a bottle of water to wash apples, grapes and strawberries. We could’ve been on a beachfront lanai in a tropical paradise, that’s how spectacularly she arranged everything.
“It looks great,” I said.
Soukpa was as radiant now as Indira had been that night beneath the Chinese lanterns. “I really like food.” Then she used a knife to flake the fish meat into a woven basket. She got every bit of meat, and then went to work on the rest of the fish. Nothing edible was wasted.
“You cook every day?” I asked.
“Doi.” Soukpa laughed and added, “If I not cook, my family not eat.”
“Is this a good fish?”
“Really good.” Eel-lee. Soukpa placed the fish and sticky rice in the center of the banana leaves, then she gave me a big smile, and said, “Okay, we eat now.”
Pete had been tinkering with his bike. He used a ladle to draw water from a large barrel beside the enclosed cabin and washed—well, rinsed—his hands. The old man was asleep beneath an awning. The young mother sat quietly a few feet away. Her kids were playing with the dog, but they had also been watching us anxiously—hungrily—as Soukpa cooked the fish. Soukpa gathered the children and helped them rinse their hands. She woke the old man and spoke with the mother. The old man stood and stretched and rubbed his belly. The young mother hesitated at first, but finally she relented.
Soukpa asked me, “You can sit Lao-style?”
“I thought the bucket was Lao-style.”
Soukpa laughed. “Like this.” Think butterfly stretch from grade school gym class. Only Soukpa pulled her right leg so it was tucked in tight behind her—one leg in front, one in back.
I thought, this is gonna hurt. I said, “Easy.” I sat beside Soukpa and contorted my legs until I had one in front, one in back.
Soukpa made the big O. “You do good!”
I grimaced. “I love Lao-style.”
Soukpa laughed again, and then caught me completely off-guard. “We pray now.” She held out her hands the way my family had always done at Thanksgiving dinner. We joined hands, all seven of us. Soukpa spoke solemnly, “Thank you God, you give everything we need.” For a long beat everything was still and quiet. Even the river seemed to pause. Then Soukpa let go of my hand, and said, “American-style, right?”
“It is where I come from.”
Pete took our conversing as a green light and reached for the fish. Soukpa popped him in the shoulder. The old man laughed, Indira-esque. Pete shrugged rather sheepishly, and let the young mother and her kids go first. The girl grabbed a fistful of sticky rice, and I thought about Lucy.
The mother said, “Khawp jai deuh. Khawp jai deuh.”
Soukpa said, “Doi, doi, doi.”
Pete finally got his turn with the fish. I was the only one not eating.
Soukpa smiled at me. “You are surprise?”
But I didn’t say anything else. If I had tried to speak again, I wouldn’t have been able to stop my tears.