Butterflies and Bombs

“Hold up!”, Rick yells as we are coasting down a hill into an expanse of green, rimmed by jaw dropping Karst mountains.  I quickly brake and turn to see him stopped in the middle of the deserted road, helmet off and looking perplexed.  “What’s wrong?”,  I holler back.  He grins.  “Butterfly in my helmet.”  We both laugh.  Butterflies and grasshoppers the size of your hand, green landscape as far as the eye can see.  Mountains.  Rivers. This place is unbelievable.  Hiding amid Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam is a real gem.  Laos.

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Tired of planning vacations, we opted for a cycling tour of Laos.  It fit the criteria.  It required no planning and just an hour flight from Bangkok.  The “tour” turned out to be me, Rick, Tee (the driver) and Ked (the guide).  Bikes included, hotels booked, luggage shuttled in the van.  Cycle from Luang Probang to Vientiane in 5 days.  With an average of 60 kg per day, we felt confident that it would be fine.

Except that we hadn’t really ridden our bikes seriously in awhile.  Now, we ride everyday.  But, you have to remember, we live in Bangkok where the biggest hill is the roadway that goes up and over the many khlongs (canals) that spiderweb their way around the region.  This is not an exaggeration (I’ll do that later in this blog).  There are no hills.  Zero. So, 60 kg in much of Thailand is a 3 hour walk in the park.

So, when I start up the 5 percent – four mile long, climb on the first mountain pass, the internal monologue begins.  “Slow and steady wins the race”, I chant to myself.  “The mind gives up long before the body”, I think.  And as my good friend, Christie, used to say, “Hills are our friends.”  This positive self-talk works for awhile.  And then a stroke of luck.  A distraction!  As we pedal at a pace of about 5 miles per hour, a group of school children are walking home along the road.  One little guy, maybe 7 or 8 years old,  starts running along side me. “Sa ba di !  Hey! Where you from?”, he shouts and grins.  “Thailand!”, I pant.  “You know English?”, he asks.  And the English lesson begins.  Me riding – him running next to me.  “What’s this?”,  he shouts as he points to his arm.  “Arm”, I reply as I down-shift.  “What’s this?”, he yells as he gestures toward a tree.  “Tree”, I grimace as I remind myself of the great exercise I am getting.  Then, in mid-stride he takes off his flip flop and holds it in my face.  “What this?”, he demands.  “Shoe”, I gasp.  And without missing a beat, he quickly slides the shoe back onto his foot – all the while, keeping pace with me.  It goes on like this for about a mile.  Then, he smiles and points to a winding path and trots away waving and shouting “Bye bye!”.  He’s home.

We reach the top of the pass completely exhausted.   But, we are met with incredible views, a cool breeze and lunch.

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At 5000 feet I’m exhausted after teaching English all the way up!

Looking out over the vista, it’s hard to believe the history of this quiet nation.  From 1964 to 1973, as part of the now infamous Secret War, the U.S. (supporting the monarchy against the communist Pathet Lao) dropped more than two million tons of of bombs on Laos during 580,000 missions.  This is the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.   While this is a tragedy in itself – the secondary tragedy continues today.  Out in that beautiful expanse of green are an estimated 80 million live bombs.

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80,000,000 cluster bombs out there.

80 million undetonated cluster bombs.  Most the size of a tennis ball.  All deadly.

And we continue our spectacular ride. Our guide, Ked, shares that he is from the north.  His village, he explains, is not too different than the ones we are riding through.  Tranquil rice paddies.  Water buffalo grazing.  Little children running to the side of the road to see the foreigners.  Waving and and grinning. “Sa ba di!”, they yell.   “Sa ba di!”,  we wave back.  So many little children.  With 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, most people were not even born to witness the bombings.  Later, we found out that many don’t even know about the bombs or UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).

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Look closely! I’m waving and there is a little kid in the right hand corner of the picture waving back.

On our fourth day of riding we reach the Nam Ngum reservoir.  Created by the Nam Ngum Dam, this is a huge lake covering 250 square kilometers.  Controversially known as the “battery” of SE Asia, Laos has many hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries that help power the region.   We haul our bikes onto a tiny boat and begin our relaxing and picturesque two hour crossing. On the way, out boatman points to an island. “Prison”, he states solemnly.  Ked proceeds to tell us that only “very bad” people go there.  And this must be true because according to the  1979 New York Times article I read on the internet, and I quote,  “The camps are called ‘reeducation centers for social evils.’ The inmates, according to official explanations, fall into three categories: drug addicts, prostitutes and hippies.” Then, our boatman points to another small boat overloaded with reeds – heading to the prison.  Ked explains that the inmates use these reeds to  make simple baskets that are used in daily life. Things like sticky rice steamers, chicken pens and sieves used to strain liquids.  Hard labor.  That’ll whip those hippies into shape!

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After five days of riding through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever witnessed, we arrive in Vientiane, the capital.  Located on the Mekong River, it’s a quiet city and easy to get around.  Saddle sore, we wander and eat and get massages.  

But we still have bombs on the brain, so we visit the COPE museum , whose mission it is to educate the public on UXOs from the Secret War.   We learn that children are often the ones to find the bomblets while they are playing.  And, because the small cluster bombs look like a toy – kids will throw them like a ball – with tragic consequences. In 2016, President Obama visited Laos and committed an annual 90 million dollars – for three years – toward the effort to clear these bombs in the next 10 years.  I haven’t heard that Trump is repealing this.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that it doesn’t cross his desk.

IMG_3440And as the sun sets on the mighty Mekong, I can’t help but think how the dark and the light meet.  How an incredibly beautiful and friendly country can still be plagued with the remnants of a war that ended 45 years ago.  How a nation of youth must deal with the the mistakes of the old.  And, how like everything in life, there is either no easy answer or no answer at all.

 

 

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The Great Leap

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Puerta Vallarta,  Mexico, 1989.  “Hey mister! You wanna Scuba?” Almost asleep on the beach, I look up to see our friend Mitch, negotiating a Scuba adventure.  “What’s your name, mister?”  asks the deeply tanned dive guy.  “Mitch”, replies Mitch.  “Feeeesh?”, the diver repeats with a half smile.  We all burst out laughing and sign on for the next day.  For our friends Barb and Mitch, this is no big deal. Mitch was a master diver and Barb was married to a master diver.  Both experienced.  Me?  I knew how to swim. So the next day, I don a mask, fins and tank and jump into the Pacific Ocean with the knowledge that only a 27 year old has – the unwavering knowledge of immortality.  And, apparently I was right because I lived to eat the scallops we gathered and sit on some beach where we drank buckets of Corona with the diver and two boat guys and sang “Gloria”  accompanied by Rick on a beat up, out of tune guitar.  Perfect.

On return to the great Pacific Northwest, we officially certified.  But, the Pacific Ocean in Washington state is VERY different from the Pacific Ocean of Mexico.  That, and a couple adorable children that required all of our attention and every penny we earned.  Clearly, our Scuba careers were doomed.

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Sorry. Gotta put a cute picture of us when we were busy with these two!

Fast forward – Thailand, 2017.  Sitting in the school canteen, I casually ask my friend Richard, “What did you do over the weekend?”  His reply changed the course of the next several months.  “Oh, I went to Pattaya and did my Scuba certification” he said, referring to a city about 2 hours from Bangkok. I perked  up.  “Really?”  I quickly gathered the necessary information from him, emailed Rick, and we were signed up for the class that night – for the following weekend.

Pattaya is – well – different.  We arrived on a Friday evening to an area called Jomtien.  It’s mostly populated by Expats here on the generous Thai retirement Visa.  (Must be at least 50 and show evidence of a substantial savings account.  Renewable yearly for a fee.)  Apparently, this was a popular R&R location during the Vietnam War.  What has lasted from that era is the innumerable number of “comfort” men and women available for hire. So we gawked and wondered about the individual stories that brought all of these people together.  Without exaggeration, it is mostly older Western men with young Thai men or women.  I hoped that everyone involved in these arrangements had clear and open expectations.  

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Pattaya. After 33 years, we each fully understand our “arrangement.”

The next morning we met our instructor, Noc.  Small and sturdy, she walked us through our written exams (during which I panicked on the math and she patiently calmed me down); our pool work (where she admitted she wasn’t sure I’d make it at first – after the math ordeal – but, was pleased I could swim); and our open water checkout dives (where I became dehydrated and learned that if you throw up under water, it’s no problem).  We were certified!

If you’ve never had to breath underwater, it’s important to know a lot of stuff about – well – diving.  Our first few dives were basically all about staying alive.  My heart would race with anxiety each time I made that giant step off the boat and into the blue unknown.  Constantly checking my air supply, hand on my regulator to make certain it didn’t slip out of my mouth and simply trying to control my buoyancy occupied every brain cell.  Lucky if I noticed a tiny fish, I was jubilant upon completion of each dive.  I had again survived!  I still wasn’t sure I liked this Scuba thing.  It took the first 10 dives to begin to feel even remotely comfortable.

Recently, Rick and I did our 15th dive, and our 5th with Yann, our French divemaster, while on Palawan –  an incredibly beautiful island in the Philippines.   It’s the low season, so it’s  just the three of us.  After two dives in spectacular coral and spotting 5 reef sharks, and a meter long turtle – he says we are ready for a drift dive.  We set in and off we go – floating in suspended animation and allowing the current to scoop us along.  Amazing. Plus, more sharks, and an eagle ray.  I almost forget about breathing.

Back on our small Banca (a Philippine boat that has outriggers on both sides that give it a decidedly “spider” look), we eat our sandwiches and talk.  Yann tells us that he just “discovered” our last dive site a few weeks before.  Unfortunately, another site that he used to go to has been recently decimated by dynamite fishing. If you are unfamiliar with this illegal practice, fishermen detonate explosives underwater as a means to catch fish.  Killed or stunned by the shockwaves, the fish float to the top where they are gathered up in nets.  Unfortunately, everything in the radius of the explosion is killed.  Including the coral.  We have seen these large areas of dead coral – grey as ash with no noticeable marine life.   I ask Yann if he’s ever heard the explosions.  He nods gravely, “many times”, he says. “But it is worst when you feel the shock waves while diving.”  He taps his chest.  “You can feel it here.”   We silently take in his double meaning.

So far, we have seen sea turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, reef sharks, moray eels, lionfish and the incredible manta ray.   I saw a dugong (very shy creature – much like a manatee)  off the bow of a boat in Indonesia.  We swam with Dory and Nemo and all their little friends. We have seen indescribable coral reefs in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Every dive is a new adventure into an untamed wilderness of incredible beauty.  And maybe because of the knowledge that only a 54 year old can have – that I am, indeed, mortal – it’s all the more wonderful and sweet.

And for this, I have two old friends to thank.   Barb and Mitch.  I never would have made that first great  leap in Mexico without them.  Thanks for high adventure, stupid choices, crazy laughter and unforgettable memories.  And, thank you for reminding me to say “yes” as often as possible.  I have never regretted it.