Monday, December 8, 2008
The Mekong. The name stirs up memories of helicopters scurrying over its surface in television shots of the Vietnam War. To me, as a late teenager, this river meant death. Or at least the possibility of it. Two days ago I turned fifty four and thirty plus years ago I DEFINITELY had no desire to be a soldier in a war that was half way around the world. I didn't want to see this river.
Now we eat in fancy riverside cafes on its banks in Luang Prabang. We watch locals transport their wares and food items up and down the river. It is different from my thoughts from the past. It is nice. We watch boatmen repair their wooden crafts, dipping into the water to check something or other. We watch women, probably their wives, hike their long skirts and bathe in its brownness. The river is alive with activity.
The four of us took a “longboat” (my term) from the dock area of Luang Prabang to the Pac Ou caves. The trip took two hours upriver and only one hour back. You think of the Mekong and you think hot. Not the day we went. I'm guessing the temp to be in the low sixties when we left at 9:00. The shallow, almost flat bottom boat slid quickly across the surface. This speed, plus the cool temps, made the passage bitterly cold. Av crawled on lisa's lap for warmth while I held Siena, her hands inside my fleece and mine in hers. Brrr....
The Mekong is very shallow. When you saw “waves” you knew there were rocks just inches below the surface. In high water season it doesn't matter, but now our boatsman had to be vigilant, winding his way through the deeper parts. You would see grasses grow out of the water, not at the edges, but in the middle. The river is wide, possibly a mile at its widest.
We saw villages on the riverside that were well up on the banks. This is the low season for the river with its obvious high marks showing on the banks many meters higher than where the river now stands. Gardens abounded. Here people grow vegetables to eat to sustain life, not as a hobby. On the way to the caves we stopped at a touristy village to look at stuff to buy. Not really interested in shopping, the four of us visited quickly and returned to the river. I noticed an older woman hoeing in the soil. I reached down and touched the soil noticing how rich, loose and apparently fertile this ground is. When I asked her if it was lettuce, she nodded her head.
They say that there are lots of villages on the upper banks of the river. We can't see any of them from the water, but you know they are there because you see people walking down to the shore. The river is alive. It isn't at all the vision of death that I thought years ago.