Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Vulture

I'm in Luang Prabang having dinner alone. That's the usual routine. People often think that's odd. I think it's odd that people think so.

It's dusk and I'm gazing across the colonnaded patio out the open timber shutter doors to the street from my small table in an old villa-cum-restaurant. The dark wooden furniture is lit with coloured-paper lampshades hanging from the ceiling and the steamy air is chilled with some downtempo electronica. Locals and tourists stroll up and down. A tuk-tuk has just pulled up.

Anyway, I'm just slowly eating my pesto linguine and I always use this quiet time for some writing, so let me tell you about some kayaking I did in Vang Vieng.

I was working my way up here, to Luang Prabang, which, by the way, is a charming town—French colonial buildings and Buddhist temples set between two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan, in the lush inland of Laos. It's ten or twelve hours by road to get here from the capital, Vientiane.

I caught a minitruck—the snub-nosed local "chicken buses" of Laos, trays fitted out with roofed cages and side benches—as far as Vang Vieng. A frame at the rear of the truck's tray was crated high with boxes of fruits for transportation somewhere. It was the real local experience. A lady climbed aboard with bags of something bloody, perhaps fish or offal, and tucked them under the benches unrefrigerated in the thirty degree heat. A young boy, fascinated with me, tugged gently at my arm hair and pulled my board shorts back from my knee to see if the same pale-coloured skin continued up my leg.

After several hours of dusty roads, I.... Eventually, I...

Sorry... this guy leaning on his tuk-tuk parked across the road is staring at me. It's distracting.

Anyway, at Vang Vieng I was met by Meng, a guide I had arranged to take me kayaking on the Nam Lik river. Sadly, the once crystal river waters turned muddy brown three years ago when the single-party communist government built a new hydroelectric dam upstream to sell power to Thailand. Worse, we were to pass another dam under construction which will soon end completely all whitewater kayaking on this verdant and bouldered stretch of the river.

There were two sets of rapids ahead of us, classes two and one. Rapids are classed one through six, with one being tame and six impassable. I have rafted white water several times but have never taken a kayak through it... and this one... this kayak, I mean....

This tuk-tuk driver just waved at me. I just lifted my head and looked out the door absently, and he's right in my line of sight, staring at me fixedly. Now he has smiled and given me a half wave like I was looking up at him. Jeez. Maybe he's just being friendly.

Okay, I've smiled politely and have dropped my gaze. Back to my story.

We hit that first set of rapids, the class two, and capsized instantly. This was an ocean kayak. It was too narrow; it should be broader and sit lower for white water, and when we edged a whirlpool we tipped.

Meng kept a hold on the craft, but I was pulled into the rapids. "Feet up!" he called to me.

You have to keep your legs up when swept into white water to clear underwater hazards. Lean back into your life vest and go downriver feet first. I knew this and did so, but I have never been a strong swimmer and my breathing got panicky when a rapid dumped me. I inhaled water and came back up spluttering, heart racing, hyperventilating.

Control your breathing. It's the first rule of being in the water, and the first that went out the window, followed by the feet-up technique. On land I fancy myself a minor survivalist. In the water I am an embarrassing disaster and my own biggest threat. Flailing, I turned around and looked for Meng.

What the fuck? I have one line of sight out the door and this tuk-tuk driver is in it, watching me. Isn't staring impolite in Laos? Now I'm keenly aware of him, and every time I look up I have to avoid looking at him, which is to look at the wall or a pillar. This is giving me the shits.

Okay. On the other side of the rapids Meng pulled me panting and coughing back onto the kayak. "Relax, relax!" he counselled me. It's a funny thing with hyperventilation. You lose your common sense. I can so easily see how people drown.

We paddled on, and the second set of rapids, the class one, loomed. Class one is defined as requiring "little or no skill to navigate". I've rafted class four rapids fearlessly before but now I'm spooked like a cat about to have a bath. I'd never been thrown in the water before. Or kayaked rapids. On a sea kayak! As we were drawn in I looked wide-eyed for some calm water between the whirlpools to run. I couldn't see any. We hit the white water. I braced!

We drifted through, and the kayak rocked a little bit.

I'm losing it. Sorry, this tuk-tuk driver is ruining both my dinner and my concentration. I'm paying the bill and packing up.

I'm leaving the restaurant, and he's approaching me!

"Hello, sir. Do you want a...?" I can't distinguish what he says. I'm already pissed off at him. It's common for an idle driver to ask if you need a tuk-tuk, but not for one to stalk you.


"Do you want a lady?"


"Do you need a tuk-tuk or... maybe you want a lady?"

I shift from pissed off to furious. Now I know why he was watching me. I was sitting at dinner alone.

"Do you know what a vulture is?" I ask him.

He is taken aback. "What?"

"Do you know what a vulture is?"

"Yes? Uh...."

He is looking confused. In a clear and indiscreet voice in the street I say to him: "You sit here staring at me for half an hour while I have my dinner, and then you come over and ask me if I want a lady. Now, do you know what a vulture is?"

He's looking away flustered and laughing softly in embarrassment.

I just walked off.

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