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Rant #500
(published August 19, 2010)
Silent Shout
by Joshua Willey
On my 22nd birthday I was staying in the village of Luang Nam Tha, 100 kilometers from the Chinese border, in northern Laos. A tributary of the Mekong flows beside the town, and my traveling companion Neil and I were both planning to catch a boat downstream towards Luang Pra Bang, and then continue on to Cambodia, but heavy rains had stopped most of the traffic, and we were content to stay on. Our room was fine, in an old hotel of the French colonial style, creaky and cavernous, with a great balcony wrapping around the entire third story onto which our suite had a door. Two women from Slovenia were staying in the next room, and we struck up a friendship with them sitting on the balcony watching the rain. Each morning we'd take advantage of a brief break in the downpour to go out for supplies. First, we'd walk (sometimes all four of us, sometimes only one or two or three) to the Theravada temple across from which there was an auto-rickshaw stand where the basket ladies (women from hill tribes who came into town with baskets of goods to sell) hung out. They wore colorful head dresses and went barefoot and smoked opium openly from pipes made of bone. They sold jewelry mostly, colorful beadwork, and wood carvings, sometimes even from teak. When we first came to town, they met us in the square and held out handfuls of bracelets. When we declined they pulled the bracelets gently aside from their palms and beneath were balls of sticky brown tar: opium. They'd make a clicking sound with their tongues and make a zigzag with their arms toward the sky and whoop, as if to say "blast off!" Once we'd become regular costumers they dispensed with formalities and just sold us opium (which was the cheapest and best we'd ever had) and attempted to teach us some Lao. They were actually Hmong people and didn't really speak that much Lao, not that we'd know the difference. One of them spoke a little English and always seemed to want to tell us about their part in the Secret War, in which they'd been opposed to the communists currently in power. She explained Laos is the most bombed nation in the world, and commanded us to go see the Plain of Jars before departing its borders.

Next, we'd walk to the river and buy warm baguettes sliced laterally and filled with lightly spiced scrambled eggs, which we'd eat en route to the bath house, which was actually a natural hot springs contained in several enclosed tubs. At first we wore our underwear, but as the individual tubs were quite private, and we became intimate with the Slovenians, we began to bathe naked, which was a great joy. The women were both very beautiful. The taller was a brunet, with sharp features and pale skin. Neil, who was also quite handsome, and was tall and pale, though a heavily freckled redhead, was attractive to her and I, who am dark of skin, eye and hair, was attractive to the other girl, who was blonde and very tan and had green eyes and never seemed to be completely awake. We would all bath and massage each other and sometimes make love in the tub, and though we had obviously paired off, we were all intimate to the point of intercourse; even my relationship with Neil was not without eros, and the Slovenians too seemed to delight in each other physically. After our baths we'd walk back to the hotel, stopping on the way for coffee, which is very good and strong in those parts, served iced in a plastic bag tied off with a pin-stripped straw protruding and mixed with a liberal portion of sweetened condensed milk. We also bought large quantities of fruit: bananas, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and coconut juice. By the time we regained the hotel it was usually midday and raining.

Neil had an 80 gigabyte iPod with an iTrip which enabled us to play music on a small radio we'd purchased in Tibet. After our coffees we'd listen to music the rest of the day. Neil would play old folk songs on his little Chinese guitar, which I'd sometimes sing along with. He'd play "Here's to the Ladies" and "Danny Boy" and "The Water is Wide." He was obsessed with a small collection of albums on the MP3 player as well, though it held some 40,000 songs all told. We listened to Bill Frisell's Ghost Town and the earliest Wailer's records, John Jacob Niles and Aphex Twin and Galaxie 500. The Slovenians were keen on The Knife so we heard a lot of Silent Shout and Deep Cuts. The days passed in reading, doing push-ups and sit-ups and jumping rope, playing chess and writing letters that we'd send next time we reached a city. Around sundown we'd start smoking opium and drinking opium tea and keep this up until we were too high to do anything but hover closer and closer to sleep, on our backs, our eyes heavily lidded, our mouths open in astonishment, listening to the rain, floating on our beds, tracing shapes on each others bodies with our fingertips, hearing in the music and the din of the rain things we'd never heard before.

Southern China is quite remote and underdeveloped, but still we felt we were stepping back in time when we reached the Lao border. The asphalt stopped and we walked the hundred meters between emigration and immigration. It took an hour to get our visas and then we wandered around the border town looking for food. Finally we found pho, which was complete with lime, mint, bean sprouts, and hot chilies. We were directed to a graveled clearing where we sat for an hour smoking the last of our Double Happiness cigarettes until a pickup with benches in the bed showed up and took us to Luang Nam Tha. When we checked into the hotel the Slovenians were already there. The blonde was from the very start ever uncertain as to whether I was making a statement or asking a question. She'd cock her head to the side and look at me quizzically, blowing smoke into the humid air, her tanned face shinning in the indirect glow of the overcast afternoon. She studied philosophy in Ljubljana though she didn't care for Zizek. One afternoon, she was trying to tell me about Wittgenstein and a burst of sunlight broke through the clouds and she started crying.

And then, at the end of the month, the rain stopped, and all the locals said it was over. The sky was clear all day and all night. We went stargazing, cloaking in the hum of singing insects and distant diesel generators. Somehow everyone had been hoping the rain would never stop. It gave of us an excuse, marooned us, and in that isolated Eden the few resources we had (books, music, opium, coffee, hot springs, each other) attained perfection. Later on, in Bangkok, in Kuala Lumpur, and much later, back in school in Mexico City, I often remembered how valuable that sparsity was. In the modern world, there is always the possibility of something else. Take that possibility away, let your soul get a little hungry, and whatever is in front of you will become exactly what you want. That was the best birthday ever, though I never saw the smoking philosopher again.

Joshua Willey grew up in Oakland, studied literature in Portland, and then moved to China where he worked an endless series of day jobs, including firefighter and commercial fisherman.

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