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A Sunday Morning in Laos




Sunday morning in Vientiane. Nothing to do today but eat three meals and kill time.

Poured Blaine’s Remains into the Mekhong River yesterday. He’s halfway to Cambodia by now.

The plan is to read a book all day. What’s the chances that the second-hand bookstore with English language novels will be open on a Sunday?

A stop at a sidewalk stand for a glass of strong coffee at 8 AM. Around the corner for sidewalk chicken and pork liver rice porridge.

I walk past the bookstore where I hesitated buying Gresham’s “Bretheren” yesterday because my money was getting short. I had headed for an ATM but stopped too long to watch a sewer line crew repair a water line they had broken while trenching. By the time I got back from the ATM the bookstore was closed. It’s closed this morning.

So, Sunday morning. All is quiet. I walk the long block to the riverside to enjoy the peace, quiet, find a pensive place. Can’t see the river. The river is low and there is about a quarter mile of sandbar with grassy dunes on the Lao side.

It calls for a walk across the sand and gravel island to the river’s edge.

What will the Commies think? Are they watching? If I walk out to the water’s edge I’ll be more than halfway across the river bed. Will I be illegally crossing the border? On a Sunday morning in Laos, who could care?

The sandbar is still an island, there is a trickle of water that connects pools on the Vientiane side. I walk a half mile down river to the narrowest trickle where I can cross on rocks and driftwood and not get my feet wet.

There are people along the way calf deep in water gathering a mossy algae from the shallow pools. Bamboo fish traps left laying on the bank show me what I’ve often wondered about, the trigger mechanism for the guillotine door. If I ever have to play survivor I can now make one.

I started out across the island. The river pebbles are a wealth of flat skipping stones. I skip a few. It’s been many years since I skipped a river rock.

There are roundish white rocks. What are they? I pick one up. I used to know, what fifty years ago? Fourth grade, fifth, sixth, when was it? We studied rocks, we first learned the different kinds. Igneous, sedimentary, there was a third basic kind, what was it? Metamorphic? We must have covered it in Boy Scouts. At the time in Ukiah—when, 1956, 1957?—I had my father drop me off across the Russian River on the road between the Vichey Springs turnoff and Scott’s Valley Road, there were some places where the embankment had been cut deeply and, given what our teacher had said, I thought that at road level I might find fossils a million years old. I hadn’t. But I did find agates and before the end of a half-day’s walk down the road to Cappella I found a wallet with someone’s driver’s license in it. I dropped it off at the General Store and Post Office. They said they knew the person. The next weekend my grandmother gave me a dollar. She said the person whose wallet I had found had asked her to pass on the reward. Those were simple, quiet, country days, everyone knew everyone and a simple act of a child returning a found wallet was a subject of conversation. Who knows how many years later someone would remark somewhere, “Oh, yes. Margaret Bull. Did you know her grandson returned my wallet? Found it half-way to Vichey Springs.”

Fifty years later, ten thousand miles away on a sandbar in the Mekhong River deep in Indochina these thoughts come to me because of this white rock in my hand. Is it a kind of marble? Agate? I should know, I knew once. Oh, how rich are those people who retain every fact, every knowing, every encounter with life and can bring it all to bear year in and year out.

I walk on and the river gravel gives way to sand. There are very deep tire tracks heading out on the sand. Someone drove an SUV out there last night. For what? To fish? To relax under the stars? To make love? A Commie patrol?

Walking the sand is an exercise for these sixty year old legs. I move into the compacted tracks of last night’s vehicle. Someone else has done the same this morning. Perhaps walking in their footprints will be even easier. But this person tread with short steps and toes turned out. What’s the opposite of pigeon-toed? Crow-footed? The gait is too short for me but I discover that toes out it is easier to cross the sand than a regular heal to toe stride. Am I at sixty years of age just now learning the optimal way to walk on sand after half a life spent on beaches? Do Arabs walk toe out? Have I always walked toe out without thinking about it? Perhaps I’m giving it too much thought, I’ve never really spent a lot of time on sand with shoes on. Though, however so much a tad more strenuous, heal to toe gives me a longer stride, I return to walking as I’ve known it.

There’s no more pebbles, all sand. I’ve reached the grassy dunes and I look back. I’m halfway to Thailand. I think of the refugees from Communism fleeing Laos 30 years ago who would have been shot to be this far out into the river bed. Am I legal? On a Sunday in Laos who cares?

The water is fifteen feet below the sharp drop in the sand.

It’s peaceful, very peaceful and quiet. I squat on my haunches and look at Thailand.

A Lao fisherman heads up stream in his sampan from my left. A typical ‘long-tailed’ boat. A twenty horsepower Honda motor mounted on a swivel, the shaft sticking straight out the back can be swung to either side all the way around to the gunwales to even run the boat in reverse without gears. He passes by and pays no attention to the Farang sitting on the sand embankment. Fifty meters up he beaches his boat.

I watch with interest as he splashes water on the pile of net in the front of his boat. The sampan is at an angle so he wades to the rear and bails water from the boat and then goes forward and wets the port gunwale and the net again, to lubricate it I imagine. He takes out his Styrofoam float with a green plastic motor oil bottle topping it, a plastic scrap sculpture, and sets it on the beach and then begins to pull his net out, a half-meter at a time, splash it in the water, cleaning it, clearing it, evening up the sides between the line at the top with the small rubber-plastic floats and the line at the bottom with the small, lead ring weights. He splashes it, picks out dried mossy algae and splashes it again, straightens it, piles is at the water’s edge and pulls another half-meter from the boat.

I’m interested in watching him, I would like to ask questions, but I know that fishermen have their routines and superstitions. What he is doing begins to look ritualistic and I don’t want to impose.

Another sampan comes up river along our shore with two men in it and beaches next to my fisherman. They greet one another, small talk. I feel I can move in now without imposing.

I walk towards them but stay ten feet from the shore so as not to invade their space. The older man of the two news arrivals greets me with the Lao, “Sabaidee.”

“Sabaidee,” I reply. “You’re going to catch fish?” I ask in Thai, which is almost the same as Lao.

“Yes,” he replies and walks up to where I stand off. My fisherman answers the small talk of the younger partner but has never looked my way.

“What country are you from?” The old man asks.

“America. I’ve just returned to Thailand and this is my first time in Laos,” I say in Thai. “I can’t speak Lao but I can understand a good percentage,” I say in Lao.

“How long have you lived in Thailand?” He asks.

I see that he is Vietnamese and I wonder if it would be rude to ask how long he has lived in Laos. At the end of the wars in Vietnam and Laos the non-communists who could fled Vietnam to America, often by boat via other countries. The Laos who fled the Commies crossed the river to refugee camps in Thailand. An old Vietnamese man, not that much older than this Vietnam Vet, living in The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos must have been a soldier for Ho Chi Minh. He was smiling at this American, he was a friend.

A few more words between us and he said good-bye, pushed out their boat and they moved across the river, dropping out their white Styrofoam float with a red plastic piece on top and played out their net.

My fisherman still hadn’t looked at me or acknowledged my presence. I walked up parallel to him but moved ten feet further up the bank so as not to disturb him. I lay back and watched him pull a half-meter, splash it, rub it, wash it, straighten it, stack it on the pile at the shore and then pull another half-meter.

Yesterday I had poured the ashes of an old friend into this river about five kilometers upstream. I looked at the water where it touched the shore and I imagined millions of molecules of Blaine Spradling spread along its edge. Half of him was nearly to Mukdahan by now and might reach Cambodia by Monday.

My fisherman was working his net as I day dreamed. He was fastidious. Perhaps a perfectionist. Had the other fishermen been this diligent and ritualistic in cleaning and straightening their nets? Had they done it at home?

Had my guy just gotten a late start? Had a late night last night? Just piled his net unceremoniously the last time he pulled it in? His method now was so meticulous. He splashed the gunwales again, splashed water with his hands onto the pile of net in the boat, went to the rear and bailed the boat with his hands once again and then he went back to pulling net. Still over two-thirds of it left in the boat.

Across the river, about a hundred meters upstream, was a Thai Navy riverboat station with three grey river gunboats tied to a floating dock.

The two Vietnamese fishermen had begun letting out their net downstream of the Thai dock. On the Vientiane side we were on the outside curve of a bend in the river. The Vietnamese float with its red plastic top was being drawn to the Lao side as their sampan, its tail swung around to the side of the boat with the propeller facing the bow, was slowly running backwards towards the Thai shore, the older man sitting on the bow playing out the net.

My fisherman was in a rhythm. Pulling half a meter of net, splashing it, straightening it, piling it. He had been at it for a good twenty minutes. At least a hundred meters of net lay piled on the shore but over twice as much still lay in the boat.

I hadn’t moved myself, lying back on the sand, fifteen feet up slope from my man.

It had been chilly day and night since I had arrived two days before, but this morning the high overcast seemed to evaporate and a warm sun began to show.

The fisherman looked up quickly over his shoulder at the sun. He had no watch on his wrist, he was clearly checking the time. Was he late?

Another sampan arrived coming down from upstream but hugging the Lao shore. The new arrival grounded his boat next to my ‘friend’—who had never acknowledged me, and asked him if he was going out yet. He said, “There’s a Farang up there.” My guy said, “Yeh,” and never looked up at me. “You could take him with you,” the new guy joked as he got back into his boat. My fisherman laughed and never looked at me. He hadn’t broken his motion of pulling, splashing, straightening, piling the whole time.

It had been an hour. Over forty-five minutes of which had been the ‘motion.’

The last visitor tossed out his float downstream of the Thai Navy docks and began to play out his net.

The Vietnamese, well, these guys could have all been Vietnamese for all I knew, but the first two that I knew were Vietnamese had drifted the better part of a kilometer downstream, their float sticking up on the Lao side of the bend and their sampan stretching their net three to four hundred meters across three-quarters of the river to the Thai side.

My guy finally had all of his net piled on the shore. He picked up a piece of blue plastic “tarp” which the net had lain upon in the boat and washed the blue plastic in the river. Then with his hands he splashed water on the gunwale and into the boat, cleaning it, lubricating it. He went to the rear and using a red plastic half-section of an old motor oil jug he bailed the water he had just tossed in. With his red plastic scoop he went to the front and splashed in more water. He lifted the board upon which the net had been piled in the boat and scooped water under it and scooped water back out.

I had been watching this man for an hour and fifteen minutes and I wondered it he was different from the others. Had they all done this before they set out? Two sampans had arrived after my guy and had headed on out to fish. What this man was doing was definitely having the look of ritual. Like a golfer who goes through the same motions before every challenging putt. Like an actor who takes superstitious steps to create his “space” before going on stage. Like the angler who never takes the blood off a hook or spends weeks tying a special fly to catch a lunker.

Was all of this necessary now, at the river, at the obvious point of take-off for these fishermen? Was it ritual?

I finally stirred. I wanted to see what he was cleaning so fastidiously under that board. I walked up to within six feet of him.

He didn’t look up. He had heard me speaking with the old man; he knew I spoke his language. But he had never really spoken to the others, never initiated a comment, he had only responded to them. Did this man have a great depth of quiet or inner thoughts occupying his mind and reflecting in his pensive countenance? Did he simply have a hangover?

He continued to scoop water into what appeared to be holds under the small hatch. Most likely where his catch would be kept. He bailed back out all of the water he had scooped in. He lay the hatch cover back down.

I retreated to my previous polite distance.

He picked up the blue plastic sheet. Dipping the sheet in the water he then laid it back over the hatch.

The end of the net that would stay with the boat had a large metal ring attached, a thin blue plastic cord about three meters long hung from the ring. He straightened out the cord, wetted it in the river and carefully looped it back into a neat coil which he laid into the boat—and then the ring. He began to bring the net back into the boat meter by meter piling it neatly upon the blue plastic sheet. He flipped the weighted bottom over the net as necessary to have no twist in it, he splashed water on it occasionally. It was much the same process I had observed for over an hour but now going in the opposite direction and much faster.

He had a stoic look of determination as he worked. The whole time had been as though observing a man pray or meditate in motion. This man had a dedication and I had dedicated my self to watching him.

He played the net back into the boat. Once more he looked over his shoulder at the sun. I had the benefit of a wristwatch. It was almost 11 AM. We had been there together almost two hours. I hardly moving, he hardly stopping. Was he thinking of the time of day for fishing? Was it getting close to the good time or was he missing it? The net was only about a half-meter wide. It would only serve to snag fish feeding just below the surface.

I wanted to ask him many questions. I wanted to know him. I engendered a hope that when he was ready to go he would finally look up at me and say, “Would you like to come?” A Sunday in Laos, you bet.

I began to wonder about the proximity of the Thai gun boats and the jumping off point for the fishing. Could it be that the Thais wouldn’t allow fishing upstream of their docks?

A fourth sampan with a very young man in it came upstream and beached next to my guy. They chatted small talk, I didn’t catch it.

With his net now all back in the boat my guy was making his finishing touches, he splashed a bit more water over the piled net and gunwale. Spoke to the young man and climbed into the boat.

He looked up at me. He looked up at me for the first time. He looked me in the eye and with a wide smile and laughing eyes, a countenance that shone upon me as though we had been best friends forever, he said, “I’m off.”

“Good luck,” I called. “Catch lots and lots.”

He smiled broadly and turned to his engine. He started his motor and headed to the drop point where the others had begun to lay out their nets.

The young man looked back at me as he lay in his sampan awaiting his turn. “Sabaidee,” he greeted.

“Sabaidee,” I replied and walked towards him. “I want to ask one thing. Are those Thai Navy boats over there?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“And you can’t drop your nets upstream of there?”

“No, they’ll arrest us.”

I began to walk back down the river. I came upon a tangled piece of fish net. I wanted to untangle it to have a souvenir section of net but it was much too snarled. I looked at the cords coming out of the floats on each end, they had been cleanly cut with a knife. It had obviously been too much of a mess for a Lao fisherman to deal with, I wasn’t going to straighten it out. I balled it up and tossed it in the sand.

I was thirsty. It was getting warm. My friend had drifted quickly downstream and as I climbed the dune I saw that he had already circled his net and was back at his float on the Lao side. Had he made a catch already? The other boats had been floating downriver for over an hour, and though they were just specks on the water I could see that they still had their nets stretched across the river. Had my guy’s diligence paid off so quickly? Had he been working for just the perfect time of day to put out his net? Or, had all of his meticulous ritual been for naught? Had his net snarled or twisted? Was he starting over?

A kilometer downriver now he moved away from his float and began to stretch his net once again.

I turned and headed back across the island towards the city wishing to believe he had needed to clear his net of fish that quickly.