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. It’s a steamy autobiographical novel about a French family living in Saigon in the 1930s, when it was French Indochina. The author, Marguerite, while still a teen was involved in an affair with an older, wealthy Vietnamese man. The book is sultry, French in its unabashed eroticism. The scenes where she is sailing on the river to meet him, languidly leaning over the rails of the boat, staring out at the jungle, cool and vulnerable, were beyond compelling. As I teen, I planned to one day lean languidly over the rails of a boat on the Mekong too, and to feel the searing emotion of the landscape, intrepid, alone, alive.
When I finally made it to the river, it was in the north of Thailand, and the boat trip would be two days down river to Luang Prabang, in Laos. This trip was on the usual tourism trail through South East Asia and mysteriously notorious. I was joined by a massive crowd of young backpackers, mostly British and European.
We were herded through the Lao immigration and led down to the shore where there was much confusion as to which boat was ours. Everyone had heard that we would have to fight for a good spot, that a good spot would be uncomfortable and a bad spot intolerable, so competition was fierce. While people were running back and forth, I spotted an old local man perched on a pile of fishing nets, smoking a cigarette and watching the chaos with vague interest. I asked him if he knew which boat it was, and he pointed nonchalantly with his cigarette towards the one on the left. I thanked him and chose that one, boarded, threw my bag in the growing pile at the back by the latrine, and got a window seat. A prime spot. His information was correct in the end. The left-over people were squeezed onto the floor space all the way back, including next to the latrine and the ear-splitting engine.
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, with almost no leg room. The only crew member of any sort was a man sitting on piles of Beer Lao boxes, which he would be selling to us all day.
We set off. The jungle slid by on the side, a single strip of green foliage for hours. The churning brown river and monotone white sky was a crushing color palette. It was hot.
It was so uncomfortable that the crowd seemed to all cave in at once and suddenly everyone was drinking the beer. Things got more boisterous, someone pulled out the inevitable guitar, several drinking games broke out. I participated and was having fun, but every once in a while, I thought about Marguerite and her wildly romantic Mekong, and my heart pulled me back to the unchanging scenery. The boat lacked a railing, but the sides were all open air. I wasn’t feeling languid so much as inebriated.
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 whose sole purpose was to accommodate 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. Everyone was drunk, and began pushing and shoving each other to get to their bag. We had all been great friends just minutes ago, and now, 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 door of the latrine. The door instantly gave way and sent me hurtling sideways into the squat toilet. My right hand went straight onto the toilet, where hours of urine and more had been passing through, flushed only by small buckets of water, if at all. I sprang right back up and frantically dunked my hand in a bucket of water that was sitting there, but that was all I could do. I slammed back into the maul of bodies with renewed vigor. I finally got up to my bag. I turned around and used it battering ram style to smash myself back through the mob, the only way out.
Then, we had to climb over six of these boats, because our boat parked six boats out from shore. The boats swayed back and forth on the currents and there was still no light. People, top heavy from their backpacks and hammered, were having a lot of trouble with this. For our final task, we had to balance on a narrow plank and walk down it to the sandy shore. The boat was swaying and bobbing, and of course there was still almost no light. I wondered grimly how many tourists died getting off the boat each week. One girl was sobbing loudly on shore; she had dropped her small bag with all her valuables, passport and all, into the river and it was swept away into the night.
Once on shore we were mobbed by Laotians vying to get us to stay at their guesthouse. Other villagers were walking around peddling marijuana, opium and more. I selected someone randomly to stay with and was led back with some others to their place.
I was startled yet impressed by the gigantic moths that had collected under one of the few lights. There were hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than my hand. I felt 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 nowhere to be found.
I washed, ate a quick meal of rice and vegetables, and settled down to sleep on a plank of wood with a sheet thrown over it. I got a couple hours of sleep, but woke up thirsty and with a slight headache around 2 a.m. It was then that the rooster came into my life.
He was a deranged rooster because he started crowing three hours too early. That heathen was perched right outside my window. The window had metal bars and no glass. I couldn’t see him out there in the dark yard, but he was close. I tried ear plugs. I tried my earphones and soothing music. I could not drown him out. I started to count the seconds between his cries. 29 seconds. He was precise. At one point, I had my arms out the window, thinking I might be able to reach him and strangle him to death. I pictured snapping his neck. I shouted at him. Eventually someone from a room nearby shouted at me to shut up.
I lay there in the sweaty, still night, listening to the rhythm of the chicken. Sleep wanted me and I wanted it, and finally I fell asleep for 28.5 seconds, woke up, fell back asleep for 28.5 seconds, and repeated that all the way until it was time to get up.
During the night, I had made plans to find the chicken and enact mortal revenge, but in the uncomfortable light of morning, I just wanted to get on with things. As I ate a breakfast of limp, warm fruit and coffee in front of my guesthouse, a group of small children, none older than eight strode by. All of them were carrying full sized machetes. I stared at them as they went up the dirt path and a few of them looked back at me, but not one cracked a smile or waved.
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 wild animals, of children with machetes, of old men on fishing nets.