People visit far away places to see a new culture, relax and have fun. If they went on an organized tour, that is. When venturing to travel on one’s own a journey is as much a discovery of a new place that it is a discovery of your own self. But there is one more component to complete the picture – and that is the other travelers you meet along the way.
Here is a batch of stories starring travellers I met at Luang Prabang – basically the same people with whom I visited the Kuang Si waterfalls on my second day of my stay in Laos + one more guy.
The guy from Australia was talking about the neighboring Laos countries. I took the chance to mention that after Laos, I wanted to stop in Vietnam and then China (both are Laos neighbors).
Then the Australian went on a rant about China being a non-democratic country, using prisoner labor, and – above all – polluting the world with its coal mines and inefficient economy.
I tried to put this into some perspective and explain where the country was coming from – telling him about the Opium Wars – of which he knew nothing, and the Japanese occupation – of which he also knew nothing. Of course, none of that had any effect. Past is past and we’d better talk about the present – was his argument.
Fair enough, I agreed. And I told him that China is already the world leader in renewables – producing and manufacturing and installing the greatest number o solar panels, photovoltaics, wind turbines. Starting from scratch several years ago, it was currently number two in renewable capacity installed, soon to be number one.
He was so amazed to hear such contradictory facts to his imagined view of China, that he plainly refused to believe me.
And now comes the irony of it. I asked why he was so concerned about China if the biggest polluter in the world was in fact… his own native Australia?
The Most Polluting People on Earth? Australians
He did not know that either. But was quick to master an answer – per capita pollution did not matter. Oh, really? What did then? The absolute quantity, of course. Since twenty-one million people in Australia emitted less pollution that the 1.3 billion people in China, the problem was with… China.
I then wanted to know what exactly gave an Australian the right to pollute five times more – and talk about democracy and bitch about the Chinese in addition to that?
Friendly relations started to crack, so both sides called it quits. Later that day, as I was reading some articles online, I came across completely by chance an article that was discussing these recent developments in China (better yet, from an US perspective – not your “Commie” propaganda, right?).
“As USCC Commissioner Dennis Shea said during these hearings, “In 2009 alone, the Chinese government spent nearly US$35 billion to support its renewable energy sector, almost double what the United States spent … China accounts for 60% of world use of small-scale hydropower, is first in the world for wind turbine manufacturing, and accounts for nearly 40% of all solar cell exports.” (The full article is here)
“Do as I say, not as I do”. End of story.
Ashley was 27 years old and had served in the US Army for 3 years. She had not been involved in combat but had worked on the “F16 avionics” (quote). Her last occupation – an electrician in Las Vegas. Currently she was jobless and was basically traveling around South East Asia on her jobless benefits.
Ashley was an African-American. On her hip she had a long stitched wound – a recent one, as one could see new pink skin under the black skin. So I asked her what had happened.
She told me she’d had a motorbike accident in Thailand (where she’d spent a month before coming to Laos) on one of the islands. She’d taken a sharp turn to avoid incoming car, had lost control of the scooter and had bumped into some souvenir stalls on the side of the road.
Nobody was hurt – except for Ashley herself, and the old Thai woman selling on that particular stall (who had just been startled, and not sustained any actual injury). Yet all the other sellers and passers-by started shouting and screaming at Ashley. After she was brought to the hospital to have her leg stitched, the Thai police took her to the police station and demanded that she paid $900 of damages. The officer told her “pay up or you go to jail”. As the ancient wisdom goes – “you always have a choice in life”. She chose to pay – and sucked her credit card dry.
Later, she called the US embassy asking for advice and help to get her money back from her insurance company. They told here they could not help her.
Some more notes: traffic in Thailand is on the left side (as in the UK and Japan) and I guess this played a role in the accident. At least it was one reason I myself refrained from riding a scooter myself. One major difference between UK/Japan and Thailand is the almost complete absence of road signs to give you some idea what you may and may not expect. To wrap it up, riding a bike in South-East Asia has its idiosyncrasies – look up videos on YouTube and you’d realize what I mean.
How much the woman from that souvenir stall probably got from the $900 Ashley paid to the police? My guess – zero. Ashley had been in Laos for two weeks already, and told me she loved Laos so far, and loved it more every day. End of story.
Diego said that he was from Colombia, and being a true Colombian he spoke English with a very funny accent. That funny accent aside, Diego was in fact a PhD student from California. I do not recall the title of his major but it was some cross-major study involving Journalism and Anthropology. Diego was traveling on a US-passport. When I asked him how he got it if he was from Colombia, he said that his mother was an engineer of some sorts and had spent the last 20+ years working in the US. She had become a citizen, and so had subsequently Diego.
Most of the times when very diverging opinions were expressed in conversations (see my story about with the Australian), Diego and I seemed held the same views – much more nuanced than the black and white universe the Australian and often Ashley lived in. So I am not able to tell you much about Diego – our opinions tended to be too similar to talk much. But writing this reminded me of an old story I’d read years ago, and I will re-tell that story instead.
Once Nanak (an Indian sage) happened to camp by the side of a well outside a village inhabited by Sufi fakirs. Early the next morning when the head of the Sufis came to know of Nanak’s arrival, he sent Nanak a cup of milk filled to the brim. It was so full that not a drop could be added. Nanak broke a flower from a nearby shrub, put it in the cup and sent it back to the Sufi guru. The flower floated on the milk, because what weight has a flower? Nanak’s disciple, Mardana, was puzzled and asked Nanak what all this meant.Nanak explained: “The Sufi’s message said there was no room, that the village is so full of sages that it can accommodate no more. My reply let him know that I shall ask for no extra space, because I am as light as the flower and shall float at the top!”
The other thing that comes to mind is the much more boisterous “Great minds think alike”. In that case, I opt for the elegance of the Eastern story over the Western slogan J.
As can be seen by his name, Phillip was… Chinese (okay, Taiwanese in fact). Phillip was one of the most interesting “birds” I came across throughout the journey. Tall and muscular, he made sure no-one failed to notice his athletic body by wearing a tank top. He spoke perfect English (had studied in the US), was always smiling and one of the most visibly easy-going people I have met. Since he’d also worked in Shanghai, I used the chance to get to know more about the practical aspects of what documents Taiwanese residents needed to go to China mainland (China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country but as a Chinese province, if you did not know it). So Phillip gave me a lesson or two about the practical-minded people on the two sides of the Taiwan straights and how business is business and money is money.
Our first encounter with Phillip was, of course in the hostel. We were wondering what to do in the evening and where to go for a dinner. So, there comes Phillip in his tank top – muscles and all, with an A4 page in his hand – a Xerox-copy of the Lonely Planet list of recommended restaurants for Luang Prabang.
He had picked up the perfect place – which we kept searching for – but could not find. After having walked around the central streets for about half an hour and having stopped four times to ask local passers-by for directions, we finally found it. It was an open courtyard garden, and it looked really nice. It was full of dining tourists – big flowerpots around, and live traditional Laos music performed by two musicians/singers on the stage.
When we were given the menu, the prices were huge (for Laos). 100,000 kip for a main dish ($12). It would not be the first time something unexpected of the kind happened to me on the journey, so I said to myself “oh, well, no big deal.” And I went on to familiarize myself with the story of the restaurant master chef & owner – which was on the first page in the menu. The story went like this: the guy was Lao, the tenth child of a family with eleven siblings. Eventually he had risen to work as assistant chef at renowned hotels and restaurants abroad (I believe he had mentioned the Hilton). Then a couple of years ago he came back to his homeland to open this restaurant.
I had hardly been able to get through this page and had not even had the time to look further down the menu and pick up a meal, when the others said “Let’s get out of here.”
So, we got off and left – to the amusement of the local Lao staff. I suspect we were not the first would be customers to get up and leave the place after looking at the prices J Outside Phillip said with a smile – not bothered at all – “oh, well, maybe my map is from an older Lonely Planet edition.”