Been There Don Det

As I write, Ziggy sings, “Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.” How fitting!

Although I have been trying to catch up on my recent travels in Thailand, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am no longer in Thailand and haven’t been for a month. I arrived in Laos on the 29th of January, crossing over by slow-boat. I started in the North of Laos, first stopping in Pak Chong, after having left from Chiang Khong (Thailand), from which I could see through to the other side of the Mekong and glimpse at Laos; at that time, the light hitting the opposite side of the Mekong in the morning was spectacular. Personally, I knew nothing about Laos and for some reason was adamant about not researching things. I just wanted to go, be surprised, and make spur of the moment (and hopefully fruitful) decisions based on walking around, word of mouth, and what I felt like doing at any specific time. Looking back on a month of travel, these desires were met and whatever goals I had for Laos were successful.

Before I delve into writing about my experiences in Laos, I’ll flash-forward to where I am currently: Don Det, 4,000 Islands, in the southernmost part of Laos, where borders between Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos meet. I could cross over into Cambodia right now, either by kayak or by boat, pay a few dollars to anybody guarding the soft border, and be on my way. Of course, were I to get caught in Cambodia without a visa sometime after, this would be a different post altogether.GOPR2093.JPG This just shows how relaxed this island (Don Det) is– even the borders are “soft.” I have thoroughly enjoyed my days here, relaxing and spending the majority of them doing nothing. Here, as opposed to many other places, doing nothing is acceptable. In fact, it is encouraged. I feel like I am living in a stereotyped version of Jamaica, or elsewhere on the Caribbean, where life is slow.

Initially, I hung around with friends from Pakse for three days, kayaking to the world’s widest waterfall, walking around and watching the Laotian children that inhabit every part of the island, and eating good food. It is with this group that I had previously done the 320-km Bolaven Plateau loop, which left from Pakse (link soon). Oh, I also sat a lot on the hammock, riverside.

Khonphapheng Waterfall

After they left, I was supposed to leave the day after, or soon after. Instead, I opted to stay for a few extra days. Don Det has a tendency to do that to people, especially to those with no real time-schedules. The only semblance of a schedule I have is visa-related; my Laos visa expires six days from now and my Vietnam visa has been active since yesterday. Aside from that, money is the only limiting factor. If I were to stay here any longer, I could easily get a job and get free meals and accommodation, something which I almost did. However, most of the job are at bars, which wasn’t quite the environment I wanted to be in all day and night.

These last four days I have spent doing some self-care, both physical as well as mental. In the mornings, I swim over to a sandbar directly across from the Happy Bar and just a minute walk from my bungalow. Every time I swim that distance, I am reminded of how difficult swimming is! Holy hell. I think I would rather run five kilometers than swim one– and I mean that. Here I could insert some cheesy quote about how we should strive to do the difficult things in life, bla bla bla. I do it because it is refreshing. It just also happens to benefit my body. After that, I go take a shower, which is ironic because the shower water is also Mekong water. However, there is a differential here: soap. I suppose that makes all the difference. I then go for breakfast at Mama Thanon’s, which always seems to be playing Ziggy Marley’s Dragonfly. As I write,  Ziggy sings, “Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.” How fitting!

At Mama’s, I relax and battle with the wifi for a few hours, sometimes reading an ebook to pass the time, or edit pictures that I know I can’t upload until I get to Vietnam, which will have better wifi. You may wonder why I have posted so few pictures. Wonder now longer: it takes me an hour or more to upload three pictures. You do the math. Often, the download will be almost complete then the wifi shuts down for a minute as it tends to do intermittently and the entire upload is lost. Sometimes I’ll order another tea and try again or just give up, close my laptop, pay, and go to my bungalow.

When the sun goes down I go for a run, which the locals seem to find funny. I return, sweaty as can be and pull out my laptop in which I have a four-part, forty-five minute long video of a specific type of stretching-meditation intended for Muay Thai boxers. It is an older, regional style, called Chaiyuth Style. The first forty-five minutes are a series of
breathing-oriented stretches that are meditative in nature.

Chaiyuth Style

Doing that on the porch, overlooking the Mekong sunset as I do it has been great. I workout, doing push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, etc, do some static stretches, and hit the shower again. If there’s still light out, I’ll read until there is none left then go back to Mama Thanon’s and hit a bar on the way there or the way back. A friend of mine, Ian, has been working at the 1 More Bar for the last few days, so I stop by and say hi when I feel up for a beer.

However, last night was my last on Don Det. My bus for Pakse leaves in two hours, from which I will buy a bus ticket to Hue, Vietnam. From Don Det to Pakse shouldn’t be more than three hours. To Hue should be another 16. Then, from Hue, I am booking a train to Hanoi, which should be another fourteen hours. I decided on the train for safety reasons as well as the added bonus of comfort; also, I can pay using a credit card, which will save me from doing another ATM run for a while.

I plan on writing on the train, if I can find a comfortable way to do so. I know for certain that such a task would be impossible on the bus. I’ve learned by now.

In any case, stay tuned as I backtrack you through my memories.

If you are bored, or–dare I say– curious, catch up on my Thailand travels. If words are boring, take a peek of my arduously uploaded photos here. Enjoy!

Old Memories: A Golden Key

I will dedicate a separate section in my blog to the stories that should remain untold were they not some of the best memories I have…

In Brazil, we have a saying and while it isn’t difficult to translate, the translation itself, naturally, doesn’t have the same effect. In any case, when we say “fechamos com chave de ouro,” it literally means that we locked it– or wrapped up– the experience with a golden key. I first learned of this phrase in Brazil when I had lived there for almost a year, just after finishing high school. Before I divulge what caused that phrase to be uttered to me at the end of a long night in the interior of São Paolo, I’ll provide some background.

The city was São José do Rio Preto. It was, by no means, a huge city but neither was it a small one. That month was noted by rolling blackouts throughout the entire city; it was surreal. I had never experience a big city in absolute darkness. Since my father’s apartment building was smack in the middle of the city, at one of it’s busiest intersections, Avenida Alberto Andalo, I would pass the time sitting on the veranda watching and waiting for the often daily car accidents; the sounds always heard first. For many reasons that year was a special year. But, considering the day I just had in Don Det, Laos, the phrase popped up in my head and since I have never written about this experience before I figure I might as well this space as an introduction to my Don Det experience.

That year (2010?) I spent a lot of time with a friend of mine, Guido, nicknamed Jelly because he used to have blue or pink hair (I forget). More commonly, since shedding the colored hair, he went by Blondie because he was light-skinned and blonde (in Portuguese: ‘Geléia’ and ‘Loirinho’). Guido came from what some might call a broken home. He lived with his father in a modest apartment in the same complex as mine. We often hung out, played soccer, and talked more than anything. Occasionally, we’d go out drinking. That same month, for example, he took me and my then-girlfriend out for drinks on the main strip. Indicative of his character, he offered to pay for everything. Wanting to decline knowing that he worked hard for a lot less than I, I chose to accept; to decline would be rude, plain and simple. He wanted to show me a good time– me, a Brazilian-Gringo hybrid; in Brazil, I was often referred to as ‘Americano’ among friends outside the family.

So, here we are: live music, absinthe, whiskey, beer, singing. This was at least 5 years ago and by now I know the problem with the end of that last sentence: mixing different types of alcohol. Well, actually, maybe mixing anything with absinthe is a bad idea– a flawed design, conceptually ugly. But, I did it. We’ve all had that realization on a night out where the drinks were flowing…that “oh shit, I’m too drunk already” realization but it’s still early. I could moderate with liquor, but moderating with beer was never my strong-suite. Til this day, I blame it on beer temperature: the longer it sits there, the warmer it gets. I, like most Latinos, will refuse to drink warm beer. Although, in Asia, where refrigeration in remote areas is substandard, I’m getting better about being a snob regarding near-frozen beer temperatures. Anyways, I’m stalling– I was wasted. The last thing I remember was talking to some Argentinians at the table next to us. Well, I wasn’t saying much. On my end, there was much more listening and blank staring interspersed among efforts of composure. The last thing I remember is that the Argentinians took interest in my girlfriend. Guido could already tell I was wasted. I leaned over to him and asked him if shit was about to go down. Like the G that he is he told me to chill the fuck out and, when the Argentinians asked who she was with, responded that she was with him. That was a smart move. As I stubbornly kept drinking my beers, I became lost in a sea of blank stares, people singing along to national songs I couldn’t keep track of nor knew the lyrics to. Oh, and alcohol.

Thinking back on it, that was the second time I blacked out from drinking. According to witness reports, aka my girlfriend and Guido, I tried to jump a cactus or some other type of plant after leaving the bar. Mind you, when I get very drunk I get ridiculously silly, like a child, and laugh at everything and often run away from people– literally. I imagine I am a royal pain in the ass. However, I find solace in the fact that I am a happy drunk. I jumped over the plant but didn’t make it. Instead, I over-shot it, landing on something and falling forward, head-first onto the side of the curb. After being unconscious for at least a minute, my friends escorted me along the 1-km route back home as I laughed too much for own good while bleeding from a gash on my forehead. In Brazil, all apartment complexes have security guards at the entrance. It just happened that my father was managing the buildings that year, helping out. I recall being held outside by my friends for a while, not far from the entrance but away from view of the guards; were the guards to see me bloody, they would’ve for sure called my father, which nobody wanted. I don’t think I was in a state to care much. I don’t know if I just kept walking towards home, or if they decided it was time to just go and risk it. In any case, we reached the gate. While I don’t remember this part, I assume they took one look at me and dialed the three-digit extension to my father’s apartment.

The night ended with my father coming and getting a good kick out my drunken self. I remember my brother telling me in the morning (and laughing his ass off while saying it)that when my father put me in the bathroom to undress and shower all the blood off me, telling me to “wash my head,” I responded by asking him “which head?” Writing about it now makes me laugh just as hard…and I’m literally sitting here alone. Okay, not alone, I have a beer. Honestly, I think my family and friends had more fun witnessing me in my “state” that I had drinking. At least I hope so.

Fast forward to what must have been no more than two weeks later. There was a massive black out. Guido and I took that opportunity to “borrow” bikes from the complex’s parking structure. The way I view it, the tires were flat and we walked them to the gas station, filled them up, and rode them until returning them; if anything, we did the owners a service. However, they noticed the bikes were gone and asked for security to review the camera footage. Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I get to the whole “being caught red-handed” shenanigans, I have to tell you what we did with the bikes. Naturally, after filling up the tires, we rode to the “represa,” which is a man-made lake, sort of like a damn. We rolled a joint, which in Brazil is easier said than done; the weed comes in bricks, packed together. To break it apart, people use a key, giving the phrase “chavecar,” which literally translates to “key-ing” something. Disclaimer: I swear I didn’t intend for the double key reference, but just go with it– it works. After rolling this joint, several kilometers from home, and smoking it while fucking with the capibaras (which are like big, coarse-haired pigs with weird faces), we continued our way across town.

Mind you, Guido was bustin’ wheelies for the majority of the time, whether downhill, uphill, or weaving through traffic with one hand in the air and the other on his seat. To this day I still don’t understand it how he managed that, stoned nonetheless. I was riding the bike like a normal human. Well, as normal as I could while enjoying the adrenaline (and high) as I weaved through traffic. We were on our way to the favelas (slums) to pick up weed. This is a part of town that my other friends would never go to for fear of whatever there is to fear there, which I guess is plenty: gangsters, guns, drugs, etc. We show up to this guys house, who Guido knows personally. We get off our bikes, ask him for some weed. He doesn’t even respond, just goes right back in the house. Guido seemed confused. I probably seemed nervous; I was. The guy reappears after a few minutes, walks up to us with his Nike hat and hands Guido a handful of weed. My friend motions to give him money and the guy declines: “Don’t worry about it, Loirinho.” He walks away without awaiting a response.

Like two kinds in a candy shop, we roll our bikes over to a nearby corner bar, roll a joint just outside of it. As we roll it, the monkeys come out and start harassing us, which turned out to be a great way to pass the hour. Thirsty, we walk over to the bar and ask for two cokes. Minding our own, just talking and going over the day, and how great it was, someone who must have been the bar owner walks up to us and asks us if we do cocaine. “No,” replied Guido, which was probably the more appropriate answer to a stranger we didn’t know in a sketchy part of town. Thinking back on it, his street smarts outweighed mine. Without thinking much, I replied in the affirmative: a simple “yes.” I knew Guido did cocaine. I had seen him do it and had even done it with him for my first time. In Brazil it doesn’t come in baggies, it comes in those little plastic things a florist puts on a rose, filled with water, kind of like a capsule. One gram costs 10$R, which is about 3$US. Promptly, this guy invites us to the bathroom, where he had what I think was a kid’s elementary school workbook on the top of the ceramic toilet cover. On the notebook, he had the biggest line of cocaine I had ever seen. For about five minutes we struggled to finish it. In the end, we had to request for the guy to come in and finish it off. Higher than before, we took off, laughing our asses off along the way as I fucked around and spoke of the day, reveling in the crazy shit we had done while he continuously pulled the gnarliest wheelies.

Riding the several kilometers back home was the first time I had heard the phrase, uttered to me as we pulled up to the security gate. We quickly learned that the owner of the bikes was pissed. He was even more pissed to find out that it was the complex manager’s son who had taken his own son’s bike. Arguments and (minor) trouble notwithstanding, we truly did wrap up that night with a golden key.

Now that I have spilled digital ink on this story of years past, I can continue on to the present. However, two-thousand words later, I am sure you will all thank me for committing it to a second, separate post.

I just couldn’t resist relating this ‘day in a life’…you never know what memories disappear, are taken over by fresher memories. I have so many of these memories that are absolutely worth telling yet, at the same time, are also the ones which you don’t– or shouldn’t– tell. Honestly though, I really don’t care who wants to judge me. I lived my life and I hope you lived yours (whatever that means to you).

Do you have any of these, from years past, that you want to share or perhaps simply can’t help share? Come on, I know you do. I am not the only one…