Time to say good-bye? Really? Already? No. I just got here. We just met, you and me, you, a White H’Moung guide named Kai Thao, and me, from Boston, far away.
“Kai in Lao means Chicken. I am Chicken Man.” Laughter.
That’s how we met, two weeks ago, here at this small airport, in Northern Laos, the kind of airport, the kind of town, where it’s quiet enough you hear every airplane that comes through, there’s one around two, then the one at three and one more around five.
If you are riding your bike around town, and you hear a plane, it’s going to be two or three or five, not two or four or six, because at one, four, six, there aren’t any planes. There is only the sound of the town, the birds, the monks and if it’s near five, they’ll be setting up the Night Market on the main street.
Then when you leave, like I have to do today, they don’t ask your flight, or where you are going, they just figure if you are here in the morning, you are going to Siem Reap because that’s the only flight between nine and eleven thirty and they are right, I am going to Siem Reap.
But first I have to say good-bye to Kai.
We met here when I flew in, I was on the two o’clock plane. He was outside with a sign with my name on it, a small White H’moung man, all seventy-five pounds of him.
Kai and I and a driver named Kip, which means “Money” in English and then Kam Soon, another driver, and E and S, my two German friends and Eve whom I met here, and had dinner with, twice, in a old French restaurant, by the river, near the bamboo bridge, those are the people I loved and shared this part of the journey with.
When I think of Laos, I think of them. But in the beginning it was just me and Kai and Kip.
“You mean I have a driver named Money and a guide named Chicken?”
“Oh yes Mr. James.” Smile.
We drove and walked, hiked and swam in waterfalls, we took a small boat down a river my father took a small boat down fifty years ago. We slept on the floor, we walked the hills, we carried our bottles of water.
We bought a cat.
Well, E, S and I bought a cat, Kai translated.
The wild cat had been caught in a trap, but before they could sell it to someone else for dinner, we bought it and put it in a box and carried back into the jungle. E and S are in Vietnam now, I keep looking for them, but they are gone now, down the road.
As E said, “when people ask me if I have a pet, I will say yes, I have a cat I keep in Laos.”
The cat cost E, S and I $1.15 each, $3.45 total. 30,000 kip. Money.
Kai was happy with us, “the cat did not want to die today, he wanted to live, to be happy, you have done a good thing, the spirits are happy.”
Kai believes not in gods and churches, of sinners and saints, but in the hills and the rivers, the spirits of the trees, of the waterfalls.
“Kai, how old are you?”
“I don’t know Mr. James, no calendar in my village but I came down from the mountain when I think I was 12 or 13 to go to school and I think that has been fifteen years so I think I am 27 but I am not sure.”
“What day is your birthday?”
“I don’t know but I am very little so I think I was born in the Spring because in the winter my mother would not have much food so I pick April 10th as my birthday.”
Kai and I were enjoying each other’s company and getting closer and then, well, he picked the leeches off of me in the jungle.
“Don’t press down, you have to let it bleed out and then the wound will close.”
So I stood, on the top of a mountain in Laos, sweat pouring out me, mud halfway up my legs, red brown thick mud, the mud the mountains on my leg, the blood the river, running through the valleys in the mud, you can wipe it off, but it’s just coming back when you start climbing again, the mud, and the blood, both.
In Boston, when you bleed, you press on it to stop the flow so I pressed and it kept bleeding so I then I let it bleed and just as he said it would, it stopped.
You don’t bleed when the leech is on you, when their teeth take hold, no, the blood, you see, comes when the leech has had enough of you and lets go. I smiled softly as I realized that, standing there, high on the hill, yes you have it right Mr James, the bleeding comes when the creature who has been taking from you, leaves. If they stay there is no blood even though they taking life from you, feverishly, through the open wound in you.
When the leech gets on you, before they start drinking, they are panicked, frantic, so near the blood and so far, you have to fight to get it off you or you don’t and let them drink.
They leave and you, even though you were the one providing the life to the pairing, you’re the one that keeps bleeding while they go on, satiated with the blood and life they have taken from you.
As I was thinking about all this and I was thinking of those who had taken from me and then left, satiated, I lifted my hiking boot up and squeezed the blood out.
“So much blood Mr James, so much blood.”
I know Kai, so much blood, so much blood, that’s why I am here Kai, I’d like to explain it to you, but it’s a long story, one I don’t quite understand myself, but there are leeches and blood and wounds that don’t heal, it’s a story of that Kai and so much more, so much more.
It took us another day to hike back to the river and then two days more to get back down the river and then Kai and I sat in an Internet café in Luang Prabang and I helped him get his first email address. He can’t type and doesn’t really understand the computer, but he now has an email address. I am not sure how much good it will do him, but he was very happy with it and that was the point.
So, are you headed this way?
Do you want to see the river? The Buddhas in the caves? Do you want to see the sunrise from the village? Swim in the waterfalls? Walk the hills? Climb the mountain? Buy a cat, let it go?
If that sounds good and you’d like to see the small town where my father went, drink rice beer, cook dinner on the flames in the hut and wonder about the piles of American bombs you still see.
If you want to hear the quiet and the peace of the mountains, listen to a single shot from a hunter in the distance, hear it echo and echo, if you want to ask people what day they picked for their birthday, and think about what day you would pick if you were given the choice.
If you want to see the hill they were born on, well, then here’s what you do.
He’s twenty seven year old or so, a White H’Moung mountain guide, he was ten years old before he rode in a car, he’s never been on a plane, but if you’re headed north, if you’re going where there is no electricity and the stars shine, where you hike straight up and straight down, the steepest hills you have ever seen, where you learn about leeches, and sleep in the chef’s house, well then, you should email him.
“I am sad Mr James, last day, last day.”
Yes Kai, last day.
“We don’t say good-bye Kai, we say see you soon, you see, we’ll see each other soon.”
“Okay Mr James see you soon.”
He walks away, I can’t watch him go so I look down at my stained hiking boots and my legs, I think of the leeches and I see the rivers of blood running through the mountains of mud.
I think of the sweat, the heat, the humidity, the water we carried, of the 10th of April, of a cat in the jungle, of new German friends, of a French woman smiling in the moonlight.
I think of those that take from you, and of those that give to you. And, as my flight is called, I think, only, of those to whom you wish to give.