Monday, October 31, 2005

What's There To Do?

It's amazing how many hours you can fill with nothing but your own thoughts and imagination. It's amazing how long you can sit, in stillness, and gaze upon the scenery around you noticing minute, ever-changing details like reflections on water, the passage of clouds, the pattern of leaves shifting in a breeze. It's amazing how easy it is to drift off to sleep while swinging in a hammock, only to wake and drift off again.

This is my life on Don Det, one of the islands in Southern Laos in an area called Si Phan Don, or the 4000 Islands. Here, the sunrise and sunset are truly bookends to the day as natural light dictates activity or lack thereof (there is no electricity). The two main streets on Don Det are named for this antiquated lifestyle: Sunrise Blvd is on the East side of the island and Sunset Strip is on the West.

We spent our time watching Laos TV. That is to say we laid on the bed in our bungalow watching the palm trees stir in the breeze and butterflies flutter around the garden of gold and orange flowers outside our window. Beyond the garden was a bamboo fence and through the slats, we could watch ducks bathe in muddy puddles left from the occasional rainshower. Further, tall green grass, a field of blooming pink lotus flowers, bamboo thickets, voluminous green trees.

We rode bikes along a dirt path that hugs the contour of the island and winds along the lazy brown Mekong River, passing through tunnels of arcing bamboo trees, forest, fields, rice paddies and villages. The only traffic we encountered were several gutsy chickens (trying to cross the road of all things), a few fuzzy baby ducks, and an occasional errant water buffalo. There are no cars and few motorbikes, so road hazards are limited to farm animals, children, and rickety wood boards placed over ditches and small ravines.

It's easy to forget there is a bigger world out there: to forget wars and bombings and disease that fill the contents of newspapers and broadcasts. It's easy to forget about getting here and going there... to forget about calendars and schedules and all the things that have to do with 'having to do' something. Don Det is sleepy, slow, lazy. It's an island, a fishing village, a place to disappear.

The 'big event' of the day is watching the sun go down -- a picture-perfect-moment when the periwinkle sky is streaked with hot swirls of red and orange and fringed with the black silhouette of trees... a single fisherman in his boat floats on still, golden water.

When the sun goes down, the generators come on for about 4 hours -- dimly lighting the restaurants where Beer Lao and Lao Lao (local whisky) slosh in clinking glasses. The night descends, sounding like the buzz of 1,000 miniature chainsaws, a million tiny tambourines all jangling in synch, the shrill wail of a referee's whistle.

The bungalows are outfitted with oil lamps (and pleading messages not to burn the bungalows down with them). It's not enough light to read at night, so once the sun has set, there is nothing left to do but find some drinking friends or drift in and out of consciousness with the swing of your hammock while gazing at the stars and planets. The sky is packed with them.

I don't think the islanders know the meaning of the word stress. Life is too slow. There is no reason to be upset. When something 'bad' happens, they laugh instead of curse. I saw one girl slip down a hill and into the river. I might have yelled out, "Shit!" or, "Goddammmit!" but she just laughed. Same thing happened when she over shot the boat dock and when she couldn't catch a monkey that was on the loose. It's easy to find humor in things like that because they are events instead of mishaps. That's why I laughed when Benjamin's hammock broke -- after asking him if he was OK first, that is.

I asked around and discovered the island has 300 inhabitants... or 750. It depends on who you ask. And according to one of these sources, tourists have been visiting Don Det for only the last 4 years. And while I absolutely loved it, I learned it's not a place for everyone. On the bus heading back to Pakse this morning, I overheard one girl whining, "The novelty of having nothing wears off, you know..." and this was after a couple of days. In fact, she said she cried that morning when someone joked that the bus wasn't running and she'd have to spend one more night on Don Det. She was one of those people who like to complain... the kind of people who do it at an intentionally loud volume so as to bring others -- complete strangers -- into their world of suffering. I don't know if people do this for sympathy or what... but she's getting none of mine. From her frequent "poor me" outbursts during the bus ride, I could tell that she has a weak imagination and probably only a handful of thoughts in her head -- no wonder she was bored with Don Det.


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