Worth a thousand words

Laos is no paradise when it comes to getting bandwidth, back up drives, and camera cards. So, when our digital storage ran out somewhere on the road from Laos to Cambodia, it was a complex dance to clear space for new photo taking. So complex somehow that I missed backing up a 2 gig card of photos.

This was a test of the Ephemerratic spirit of our trip. Nothing makes digital photos more ephemeral than having no one else ever see them.

Though hundreds of photos are gone, I remember how good some of them were. Some you can imagine from our stories “On a chicken wing and a prayer,” “Ain’t no party like an island party,” and “Rat soup.”

Here, in exactly a thousand words, are just a few of the other missing photos that I can’t get off my mind.

* * *

As midnight approaches, Todd and I wait at the Tha Khek bus station with another tourist, swapping the usual travel stories and advice. Lacking other entertainment, we watch a local bus get swarmed by onboarding passengers desperate to load bags and baskets onto the already overflowing bus roof.

Through all this bus hubbub, Todd notices some unusual cargo staring at him from the roof. Woven cages shaped like Chinese pork buns hold several goats, while other goats are uncrated, only a thin rope leashing them to the roof rack. One black goat stands tall amongst the others, utterly untethered, kept on the roof only by gravity and goatly grace.

I jog over to take a photo of the surreal scene. The eyes of the goat and the dust in the air both reflect in the sudden light of my camera flash. As the bus jerks out of the station, the black goat remains standing on the roof, surefooted of course.

* * *

The sun was brutal on our long bike ride to Wat Pha That Sikhotabong near Tha Khek. Clouds finally putter in just as we reach the wat, discouraging the bicycle-mounted ice cream vendor that’s been following us for a while.

Though it’s no stunner, the wat has a idyllic river-side location, few neighbors, and several eccentrically folksy Buddhist touches to make it interesting. We shed our shoes and enter the main building barefoot. Mysteriously, the front door opens onto Buddha’s graceful rear. Since we can’t see if there’s anyone praying, we keep quiet as we circle clockwise around to Buddha’s better side.

The prayer area is empty of people. The shrine, however, is packed with portraits of withered monks, offerings of fruit and packaged cookies, smaller Buddhas of metal and stone, and religious paraphernalia made of iridescent fabrics and woven palm fronds.

As I frame a photo, I’m surprised to see a tiny, old monk napping at Buddha’s feet, curled up amongst the Buddhist bric-a-brac. I can’t help but smile as I take the photo, which is now way more interesting than I originally thought.

* * *

From our high perch on a pile of boulders at the river’s edge, Todd and I skeptically assess the movement of the water at the Falang swimming hole near Tha Khek, worried that if the water’s too stagnant our swim will become a medical liability.

Our songthaew-taxi driver shouts to a fishing boat just up river. As if called by a siren, it floats our way, the boat just big enough for the man, his son, and their modest gear of a few handmade fish traps and some fishing line. Before the boat comes to a stop at our feet, the father and our driver are already discussing the gastronomic merits of the different fish flopping in the two inches of water covering the boat bottom.

As our driver chooses his fish, I take a photo, camera pointed straight down. Silver, white, gray fish. Red gills. River water green with a touch of blueness. Sun-faded wooden boards, bleached to a cool-toned tan. In the nooks of the wood, between planks, in the knots, and in the cracks, there are flecks of blue and red and white paint, like Fourth of July confetti in the gutter. Bare feet of the kid, his natural brown skin deepened by long mornings fishing in the sun. In the corner of the frame of the photo, the kid looks up into the camera, big, wide eyes. Wider smile.

* * *

It’s hard to be perky when it’s so hot that my sweat soaks my eyebrows. There are so many things protecting eyes – eyelashes, eyelids, the hard, protruding ocular bones of the skull. Still, I don’t think too often about the usefulness of my eyebrows, that is, until they’re drenched with sweat that would otherwise have flooded salt, dust, and sunblock into my eyes.

Todd and I have to leave our bikes at the entrance to the ruin area of Wat Phou, and it’s a long uphill walk to the crumbled Angkor-era buildings. Even under the shade of an umbrella, the heat from the sun radiates through the material.

As we pause under the grudging shade of a frangipani tree, Todd picks up one of the fallen white flowers, a daub of yellow in its center. Tucking it behind his ear, he flaunts his floral ephemera. Todd grins at me, happy to be at Wat Phou in time to see the trees in perfect bloom. I take a closeup of the flower and his face, sweat and all.

* * *

As we get ready to bike back to our bungalow, we see Simone walking towards us on the dirt path. Though Todd and I met her somewhere unremarkable, on a bus or in a café, Simone herself is remarkable, recognizing us and recalling our names despite the surprise encounter in the encroaching dark.

She invites us to join her and a few friends for sunset and dinner. Though we’ve eaten already, Todd and I can’t refuse the chance to meet more strangers. First though, we need to pick up her friends at their bungalows. It takes a while for Simone to remember her way to the bungalows, tucked in the back roads of Don Det, which, in the fast fading light, are feebly lit by kerosene lanterns or the occasional generator-powered light bulbs in nearby buildings.

We find Simone’s companions for this stretch of Laos, sprawled barefoot in hammocks. We chat most with Mike, who tells us how, after weeks of eating little more than bugs and rice while volunteering at a rural Buddhist monastery, he spent a long, sleepless night, tortured by uncontrollable thoughts of cheese.

We swap more stories, nosh on crisps and beer, and watch the sky – which has done something stunning every day we’ve been in Laos. I snap a photo of palm trees silhouetted by bands of pinks and purples. Corny shot or not, I don’t want to forget this moment.