Mr. Hummie and the Cave

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, January 9, 2006

After a five hour bus ride beginning before dawn, Lucie and I arrived at Ban Na Hin, a town at the north end of broad, flat Nam Hin Bun River Valley. On both sides of the valley were sheer, jagged limestone cliffs sparsely covered with the gnarled branches of dry season deciduous trees. The earth in the rice fields was baked and cracked in stark contrast to the lush green paddies during the wet monsoon season.

We jumped into a sawngthaew, a small, covered blue truck, heading into the valley, but instead we traveled ten meters, loaded some more gear, then drove another fifty yards to pick up some more people, then back-tracked to fill the gas tank, then stopped for the driver to look at a new door for twenty minutes or so, then pick up another few people including Shoshawna from New Jersey. An hour later, we finally left with twenty-nine people and their wares and gear. As Tom Robbins described Laos (Villa Incognito): "The afternoon passed more slowly than a walnut-sized kidney stone."

On the way, we talked with Shoshawna, who had just finished a year stint in Palau as a lawyer, where professionals are in dire need. This was her last trip into the wilds of southeast Asia, as she was heading back to the States shortly.

The late afternoon was a warm yellow as our sawngthaew broke through a bridge, sticking a wheel between two logs--we weren't going anywhere for a while. But we were already there, as a village was just above the small rise out of the stream bed. Shoshawna decided to stay with us as we walked through the village looking for a home-stay.

Soon we met Mr. Hummie, spelled Jehammy, a veteran of the war the U.S. government prefers to not think about, the war of excess bombing, the war of M.I.A.s, the war of Air America, the war between tribal groups, the Royal Government, and the Pathet Lao Communists. Mr. Hummie was an air traffic controller for the Royal Lao Air Force and gave us a sample:

"R. L. A. F. 142 you are cleared for landing...R. L. A. F. 523 state your destination..."

He showed us his village, Phon Nyaeng, and our place to stay for the night. The village, like most villages in Laos, lacked in older people like Mr. Hummie. About half of Laotians are children, with each woman bearing almost five children, on average. Many would not survive to adulthood age, with ten percent dying before the age of one (compared to less than one percent in countries like the United States). As Laos modernizes its health system, however, life expectancy will continue to increase.

But infant mortality statistics didn't seem on the minds of these children, who played with each other in the dusty earth of Phon Nyaeng. One boy in the village was sick with a cough: would he survive and become part of the ugly statistics, mourned by his mother, his play friends?

That night we found our dinner in the village and bought a chicken and some vegetables from them. Nearby, strangely, was a fancy lodge with restaurant, but the money would probably go to some fat cat in the big city instead of the equally-entrepreneurial villagers like Mr. Hummie, who was likely in hiding, incognito, after his military experience against the now-in-power Pathet Lao (180,000 people are presumed dead because of their political views or military background in Laos).

We ate well, though the chicken was tough and lean after scraping through the dust for food. After dinner, we celebrated with the villagers over a pot of Lao Hai, rice wine, diluted with water. Two bamboo straws were thrust into the pot, with water added until full. Two people then drank together until the "ref" measured out another glass to fill the pot again. Soon we were all dancing as I played harmonica and the villagers clapped. Mr. Hummie was happy.

We awoke in a haze to board a long wooden river boat powered by an eight horsepower Honda engine, although it didn't work so we had to try another boat, which worked despite having to bail every so often. Along the banks of the river, happy children ran to the banks of the river to wave as we passed them. The river was low during the dry season, so we dodged rocks, tree trunks, and sandy banks, often stopping to push as we headed to our destination, the Tham Lot Kong Lo Cave.

This is the land of one river and two valleys. The cave exits one valley through a mountain and enters the valley of Phon Nyaeng as it passes through seven kilometers of sculpted limestone called Tham Lot Kong Lo.

We entered the cave by foot, as the two boatmen navigated the boat through a few rapids at the immense mouth. Warm air blew through the light-less cave into our faces. The lamps of the guides tracked back and forth across the river, slightly illuminating the walls of the cave, which often extended upwards into blackness. Sometimes it felt like boating at night in a canyon, during a cloudy new moon, although the musty smell of the cave and the echoes of the Honda motor running, followed by a stretch of low ceiling with stalactites was indicative that we were, no doubt, in a very large cave. We reached the other side and stopped for some sticky rice and relaxation before boating back to the village, passing iridescent green damselflies, herons, domesticated ducks, accipiters, and many waving children.

Tired, we slept well.

The next day, after waking up to the air traffic controller voice of Mr. Hummie--"Mr. Voy (my name) sleep well?"--we took a three-wheeled jumbo out of the valley. On the way, the jumbo driver powered his way up a dusty narrow road. I knew he wouldn't make it and prepared for the crash as we flipped over. My ribs hit a bar on the roof, but otherwise we all were scrambled but unscathed. We loaded our bags on a passing sawngthaew and continued traveling. My ribs will probably hurt for a while, either bruised or cracked or something, but I have plenty of relaxation time for them to heal.

Eventually, in Lao-time, they will heal.
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carolyn on

Hope your ribs are ok!

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