Certain rivers wind through our dreams long before we see them. I had wanted to sail on the Mekong River ever since I read The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, when I was a teenager. The book is sultry, French in its unabashed eroticism, set in the more beautiful 1930s. Marguerite drips over the railing of a rusty ferry boat on the Mekong in French Indochina, on her way to meet her older Chinese lover, staring off at the horizon, thinking thoughts worthy of her surroundings.
I finally made it one day. I would take a two day trip from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos. It was never sultry.
I was herded among the swarms of other backpackers to a pair of boats. People were running back and forth between them, which one was it? No one knew. No one was there to tell us. I spotted an old local man perched on a pile of fishing nets, smoking a cigarette and watching the chaos with mild interest. I asked him if he knew which boat it was, and he pointed with his cigarette towards the one on the left. Thanks to him I got a decent spot, not near the latrine or the ear-splitting engine and even had some leg room. Others weren’t as lucky. The boat was a long wooden one, open on all sides, with a wooden roof. It was turquoise. It had two rows of wooden bench seats down each side. We sailed as such, crammed into impossible spaces, our backpacks in one huge mountain at the back. The only thing to do was drink Beer Lao, which a local wisely sold from large boxes near the latrine.
The jungle slid by on the side, a single strip of distant green foliage for hours. The churning brown river and monotone white sky was a crushing color palette. It was hot. I thought about Marguerite and her wildly romantic Mekong, and knew, those days were long gone. We drank more beer. Unfortunately, someone had a guitar and we all sang songs.
After dark, we all arrived raging drunk at our overnight stop. We were to spend the night in the middle of the jungle in a small village that accommodated the boat loads of tourists dumped there each evening. But first we had to get to the shore.
There was no light, at all. I tried to make my way to the back of the boat to get my backpack. Since everyone was drunk, it was a disaster and people began pushing and shoving each other to get to their bag. We had all been great friends just minutes ago, and now, mortal enemies.
I squeezed up about level with the latrine, when a strong backwards push shoved me over. To catch myself, I threw a hand out onto the rusty old door of the latrine. The door swung open and sent me hurtling sideways into the squat toilet. My right hand went straight into the toilet, where unimaginable horrors lay. I got up and dunked my hand frantically into a bucket of questionable water, and with renewed fury, fought my way to my backpack, dealing out an elbow strike or two along the way.
Once on shore, the villagers mobbed us, selling opium, marijuana and a hard bed to call home for the night. I selected a villager to follow home and made my way up the path into the jungle with my fellow backpackers.
I was startled yet impressed by the gigantic moths that had collected under one of the few lights in the village. There were hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than my hand. I was acutely aware of the blackness spreading out from the single light in all directions leading deeper into the wild, thick with animals, chirping and singing in the dark, eating each other, mating, sleeping, civilization still a far-off secret.
I washed, ate a quick meal of rice and vegetables, and settled down to sleep on a hard plank with a sheet thrown over it. I drifted off but woke up thirsty, sweaty and with a slight headache a few hours later. Right then, a chicken crowed passionately, right outside my open window, startling me so much, I jumped up. But it was not dawn, it was not even close to dawn, why was he awake already? I went to the window. I could see him sitting there, just out of arm’s reach. He rang out again, beak open to the moon above, howling his emotions into the jungle air. I tried throwing an extra toilet roll at him but missed. I went sadly back to my bed and hoped he would stop, but he didn’t. He crowed every 29 seconds, I counted, for three hours. I fantasized about strangling him. At one point I started shouting abuse at him until someone in another room finally yelled at me to shut up. I tried reading my book but I was too consumed by my fury at the chicken to concentrate. The good thing about time, is it always passes, and eventually it was time to get up in the pinkening light.
During the night, I had made plans to find the chicken and enact revenge, but in the uncomfortable light of morning, I just wanted to get on with things. As I ate a breakfast of limp tropical fruit and coffee in front of my guesthouse, a gang of tiny children strode by. All of them were carrying full sized machetes. I stared at them as they went up the dirt path into the jungle, not one of them looked at me or the other guests, not one cracked a smile or waved. I found them very impressive.
The second day of the boat ride was more muted. The scenery became interesting in the afternoon as we got closer to Luang Prabang. We wound through beautiful green karsts, and stopped at a cave full of ancient stone Buddhas. I spent time in contemplation, subdued by fatigue. The experience of Marguerite was impenetrable, as impenetrable as the black wilderness of the night before. I’m relegated to this cheap tourism, to insulting chickens, to the mild melancholy of locals who see us for what we are.
Later, as I ate my coconut curry in the pleasant but touristy town, my mind wandered back again to Marguerite hanging over her railing, dreaming of her lover. Did her heart ache in time to the pounding Mekong? Did the heat of the overcast sky push down on her too, as heavy as her loneliness? Behind me, as I dreamed my old dream about Marguerite dreaming, the Mekong swirled brown, immense and relentless, running on through the jungles, through the lives of the wild animals, of children with machetes, of old men smoking on fishing nets.