I was always taught that it was rude to stare at people in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, stare at a man in a wheelchair is exactly what I did last night. Not only did I stare, but my eyes widened and my jaw slackened. Whether or not I tilted my head slightly to one side is beyond my recollection, but for the sake of this story assume that it did.
He saw me staring, but far from being affronted by my uncivilized behaviour, the man in the wheelchair flashed me a grin and gave me the thumbs-up. He looked as if he wanted to give me a double thumbs-up, but one of his hands was clinging onto the back of a pick-up truck traveling at thirty miles per hour. He was stealing a ride like Marty McFly does in Back to the Future.
‘If I was handicapped, I’d want to be as hardcore as that guy!’, someone said. ‘Maybe that’s how he ended up in a wheelchair in the first place!’, said someone else.
I said that that I thought that life had handed him a pair of lemons, but instead of making lemonade, he squeezed the lemons in life’s eyes, ground the pips into dust, made life snort the dust, then kicked life in the seat of its pants until life went running off crying for its mummy.
There’s a scene in ‘King of The Hill’ in which Hank Hill asks his exotic new neighbour if he is Chinese or Japanese. ‘I’m Laotian, Mr Hill – I am from Laos.’ Hank pauses for a few seconds of confused silence before responding, ‘Right. Is that CHINESE, or JAPANESE?’
You should take it from this that I am in Laos. The life expectancy here is a little over fifty. One in four children do not reach the age of four. Half a tonne of bombs per person was dropped on Laos by Americans in the Indo-China ‘conflict’. Some bars in Laos decorate their interiors with unexploded shells, and some of these bombs have names scrawled on them. These are names of American soldiers who wanted to personalise the already crystal clear message that was, ‘Fuck you, you commie yellow bastards!’
There’s a Shakespeare quote for anybody visiting Laos who doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the remaining evidence of the world’s most powerful nation bombing every kind of shit out of impoverished farmers predominantly armed with sharp sticks on the other side of the world from them: ‘To weep is to make less the depth of grief’.
We took a slow boat down the Mekong into Laos from Thailand. We stayed in a tiny village where electricity was strictly rationed. When you check in to a guest house, they give you a candle with your key. I tried reading by candle light, which proved difficult. Partly because you risk setting fire to your book if you hold it too close to the flame, but mostly because I was shit-faced on Lao Whisky after spending the evening in the company of some locals. The local dram is fifty-five per cent alcohol, I learned too late.
The next day we arrived in Luang Prabang, a charming town of French colonial architecture (and bakeries) which is clean and quiet. I ate a local dish called Orame. It has chunks of wood in it that have been soaked in chili oil. You suck the wood! Walking through the night market after dinner, my brain made a short-circuit. My sub-conscious interrupted my conversation. Walking towards me was the Dutchman we made friends with in Calcutta nearly two months ago. We greeted each other with a ‘Gezellig!’ – an old-fashioned Dutch word used emphatically on occasions meriting warm conviviality, and then repaired to a bar to compare tales.