Why bathe your dream in space’s icy field
why never turn around
go back and find your home
behind the incandescent solar shield
to life’s treasured loam?
— Harry Martinson, Swedish Nobel Laureate
For breakfast, I drop into the nearby Scandinavian Bakery and images of American Independence Day celebrations flash on the television. Hey… I think, still waking up, it’s July… For days, I have not known what day it is, nor have I needed to. Tuesday or Friday, June or July, none of them matter. All I know is that it’s the rainy season and tonight, like every night for the past two weeks, as the sun sets behind the Mekong River, the white clouds that have built all day into turbulent floating empires will erupt into color.
I have a coffee and a croissant and while flipping through a Swedish magazine, I find the above lines of poetry. After six-weeks in south-east Asia, I feel like a veteran traveler. It’s not time to turn around yet, I want to answer, I’m still leaving home. Unfortunately, despite being ready to leave three days ago, it’s not time to move onwards yet either because I’m waiting for a Vietnam visa. Though there’s more here I haven’t seen, I feel like I’m just killing time.
“I wonder if Vientiane was ever like Havana before the revolution,” Lee, from England said to me yesterday. The Lao Revolutionary Museum would have you believe that revolution is always around the corner. From bloody paintings with titles like, The Lao People Rise Up Against the Burmese Feudalists, The Lao People Rise Up Against the French Colonialists, and The Lao People Rise Up Against the U.S. Imperialists, I expected to see a proud city teeming with people ready to fight against recent invaders like Western Capitalists or International Tourists. Instead, Vientiane languishes in ugly cement low-rises, overgrown, vacant lots, broken sidewalks and dust. Evidently, all the revolutionaries are at home asleep, exhausted from centuries of fighting, or, lulled by the heavy air and the incandescent sun.
This sort of time-defying lethargy is charming in rural villages but depressing in a capital, so after the museum I cycled out of town to the Lao Ethnic and Cultural Park. Though lush, the park was a sad, little zoo and as soon as I saw the birds, I thought of Blake’s lines, A robin redbreast in a cage/ puts all heaven in a rage. It wasn’t small songbirds but great birds of prey that were trapped in cages barely larger than their wingspans. Many of them dozed lifelessly, perhaps resigned to their fate.
But as I rounded one of the cages, an imprisoned, yellow-eyed falcon stared me down. From its perch in the middle of its cage, it locked its eyes onto me as soon as I came into view. I walked around to the side of the cage and, barely moving its head, the falcon’s eyes followed me as far as they could. I returned to the front, and watched it watch me pace back and forth.
I’ve been stared at a lot in this country. Always the dead-eyed stare of the men, often the old men, on trucks and boats, who look at you without any malice or curiosity but keep looking nonetheless at a face that is truly foreign to them. At times, impatient, I stare back. But I’m always the one looking away first. Here, in front of the cage, was an unnerving vigilance. Not just the bird’s icy, despairing stare but its barely contained rage, as if staring back was the only way to fend off its demise.
Suddenly, the falcon opened its curved beak and I braced myself for its piercing cry. No sound came out. Again it tried and again nothing. It seemed to be enduring a waking nightmare and I stood in front of the cage as long as I could bear to.
Harry Martinson’s story is similarly tragic. He won the Nobel Prize in 1974, the same year that the communists were seizing power in Vientiane (and Laos was still in the process of becoming the most bombed country on Earth as the U.S. tried to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through the eastern part of the country), for writings that “catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” Both he and his co-winner, fellow Swede, Eyvind Johnson, were controversial choices because they were on the Nobel panel. The public criticism of the Swedish Academy hurt Martinson deeply and, four years later, having been ill for a long time, he committed suicide.
After breakfast, I inquire about my visa, to no avail, and venture off to Wat Si Saket, where the staring is purely internal. By virtue of its surviving the Thai invasion of 1828, the temple is Vientiane’s oldest. Inside the long corridors of the cloister, dozens of three-foot-tall Buddha images sit side by side in tiered rows. With thin smiles and half-closed eyes, most sit cross-legged with one hand in the lap and the other stretching down to touch the Earth, the attitude of calling Earth to witness after subduing the temptations of Mara. Behind them, thousands of miniature Buddha images sit in niches in the walls.
It’s a bizarre collection: tarnished bronze Buddhas with fat noses or slender noses, ceramic and wooden Buddhas with drooping ear lobes, some with spider webs, some without head pieces, with their features decaying yet still subduing Mara; each dusty, cracked, pock-marked or with chipped paint, some with a sash, sitting with straight backs and strong chests – three-inch tall models of mental vigilance, waiting. Here and there, a few literally stand out in the Lao pose, “Calling Forth the Rains,” with arms stiff at the sides and hyper-extended fingers pointing down, though rather than looking like it can bring down the clouds, the image appears poised to take off like a rocket.
Incense drifts through the air and the low drone of chanting emanates from the interior of the temple; people jam the doorways. Rather than enter the crowd and see what’s going on, I pass along the cloister walls again, thinking, another reply to Martinson: To be here, to see these things that surprise me, this patience.
The evenings become routine: I meet up with Richard, from Brazil, and Damon, from England, at the food carts by the Mekong for a bowl of noodle soup and green papaya salad spicy enough to scald our mouths, no matter our requests for fewer chili peppers. One night I tried to bargain for a better price for some chicken balls for the soup. “Just start flashing money,” Damon said, “she’ll come around.” It worked.
Then we traipse over to the patio of the Mixai Restaurant and have a couple of beers (“Beer Lao — The Full Taste of Happiness”) while the western clouds explodes in a slow-motion kaleidoscope in the setting sun, glowing by turns yellow, pink and red. By this time, we’ve collected a half-dozen other travelers from almost as many countries. We dispense quickly with travel stories and soon launch into the sort of wide-ranging conversations that are so easy on the road about whether Laos is as poor as the statistics indicate, what is poor, really, what television will do to the close-knit villages when it arrives in full force, how shoestring travelers become even stingier in cheap countries, how the theme here is interdependence – and the common good – rather than independence – and alienation – as in the West, and whether capitalism will dominate the 21st century or collapse. We think we’ve got it all figured out.
Afterwards, we forget our seriousness and go to Samlo Pub, among the locals and ex-pats, for a nightcap. Tonight, from the wall above one of the couches, perhaps a memento for French colonialists, a dancing girl from the Moulin Rouge scowls at me out of a painting. She’s the only one in the dressing room and sits hunched forward with her legs apart, elbows on her thighs. A frilled yellow feather-scarf droops around her neck and her rouge lipstick brightens her pale face. I have to shout over the music to converse with Richard and Damon and at every lull in the conversation I stare back at the painting, tantalized by the sudden moment of intrusion. She’s tired of being looked at, of her work, her life. But the more I look at the painting, the more I like it.
After weeks of green countryside, Buddhas, and temples, I’d forgotten about this private communication of art, this conjuration of place and feeling. Why never turn around, Martinson asks. Tonight the answer is: To be here in Vientiane, stared at by one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s women.
Daniel Hudon always tries to travel in the moment. He has published other literary nonfiction in Pology, Asian Cha, Tiferet, Bayou Magazine, Descant, Event, The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review and Grain. His first book, “The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos,” will be published in the spring of 2009 by Oval Books (UK).