On Finding “Travel Zen,” and other lessons in Buddhism

August 5, 2012 in Asia, Laos, Travelogue

Travel is one long lesson in patience, punctuated with epic highs, undergirded by the unavoidable lows.

The “ferry” crossing the Mekong, at Champasak, is of questionable safety. “It occurs to me that this is one of those boats my brother warned us not to take,” I quipped to Tony as I sat on the slatted deck, slung haphazardly between two leaking wooden canoes and powered by a coughing diesel long trail motor.

We’d been rushed through breakfast by our driver who felt the need to have us to the lazily operated boat dock by 8:30 a.m., sharp.

We waited over an hour for the bus. The French tapped their toes impatiently. The Italian shot the breeze with Elisha. The Brits waited with their signature Brit dignity. I lay in the street, propped against a bag and alternately snoozed in the sun and knit on Gabe’s sock. Hannah played her guitar and sang, “Country Roads” to the Lao children wandering by.

The bus ride was uneventful, except for one key element: It did not go where we expected to go.

It went from bad to worse. I’ll spare you the details and just hit you with the highlights:

  • We didn’t realize the error until after the bus had departed and left us stranded
  • We were out of money
  • Lunch was noodles in a shop requiring a great deal of faith to eat at and the table was set by a man with an IV drip in his arm, hanging from a nail in the ceiling and a loop of plastic bailing twine.
  • The boat we’d arranged before lunch, to take us to the appropriate island for an exorbitant rate was sold out from under us while we were eating lunch.
  • We ended up with a mini-van to another dock at an even more exorbitant rate.
  • The teenagers lost their cool for just a second.

The rain started to fall in torrential sheets as the tiny canoe type boat pushed off from the mainland.

It was one of those boats that requires passengers to sit completely still and the water to be glass like on the surface. Instead we had Ezra in the bow and whirlpools met with standing waves from the fast moving current of the river.

I thought about all of these things as I pulled baby rice plants up by their roots, looking sideways at the woman next to me and trying to do it the way she was doing it.

“No,” she mimed, “Like this…” and she slowly showed me how to twist a tiny handful of plants and pull them at an angle, tearing just their roots from the mud. I tried again, she smiled.

The woman crouched behind me laughed and drooled red betel juice down her chin as she clapped me on the shoulder. 

A third woman hollered to someone on the path between paddies when I stood up to tap the ends of the tender green plants on the ground, to even them, and then slapped them against the side of my bare foot like the ladies had shown me, before laying them down with theirs to be bundled.

The woman on the path laughed and hollered back, this time clearly at me. She clapped for me and doubled over giggling.

How I came to be pulling rice from the ankle deep mud with five Lao ladies was an exercise in marital discord avoidance. I’d gone for a long walk.

  • I saw rice noodles drying in the sun, and the inside of a Lao house on stilts.
  • Children waved and “Sabaidee’d” me as I wandered.
  • I helped an old grandmother and a young girl move a book shelf from a house on one side of the street to the other.
  • I spoke to two water buffalo who were thigh-pit deep in a nice wallow near a drainage pipe.
  • Then, I stopped to photograph the ladies working in their paddy.

They offered me to help.

I pulled my quarter of the 20×20 flooded section of baby rice plants as efficiently as I could. One lady came behind me and cleaned up a bit, offering mimed pointers for the angle to pull at and how to perfect the foot slap.

My ankles started to hurt from the crouch and every time I stood the ladies giggled. I towered over all of them.

Today has been a continuation of our lessons in Buddhism. Today’s subject: Letting go of attachments:

  • To time
  • To money
  • To expectations
  • To plans
  • To comfort
  • To irritation and strife
  • To desire in general

Tony found me walking home barefoot, with mud to my knees, thistles stuck thickly in my red pants and my shoes in hand, smiling.

I found him weaving between potholes filled with water the colour of Thai milk tea on a red bicycle.

He looked at me quizzically and asked, “What have you been doing?”

“Planting rice!”

We rented five more bikes and the children lead the charge around the south end of the island, through lush jade fields of rice filled with families working, water buffalo plowing and pigs on the ends of ropes rooting around the margins. The monsoon drenched us. Hannah played peek-a-boo with children locked inside their house while we waited out the rains. Gabe’s bike tire deflated completely and he rode home with Ezra piggy backed while Tony pushed the bike alongside his own as he rode the last 6 km. I watched the world turn from sapphire and emerald through every shade of lavender spiked with dragon fruit before twilight fell. We pedaled past bamboo and thatch huts with cinnamon skinned children playing naked  beneath them and mamas, dirty from the day’s work, bathing wrapped in sarongs in their courtyards.

This section of the Mekong is dark. A butter yellow moon has painted the chocolate milk of the river with a shimmering silver stripe. My drink (a Don Khong Sunrise) is empty and I’ve nibbled the last of the lime. My children are in bed. Tony is nose down in his book, and I’m wondering what lesson tomorrow will hold, and hoping hard I’ve learned today’s.