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Wilds of Laos, 23rd January 2012:
Travelling on the hideously uncomfortable bus from Luang Prabang to Sam Neua (Vieng Xai), a 14-hour-long colossus packed with skeletal seats and bony elbows, our steam is running out. Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter is losing its charm and our stomachs used up their last offering long ago. Finally our seemingly indestructible bus driver halts his steed.
At one time or other in our driver’s youth he must have been asked by his fellow Laotian friends, “If you were a superhero, what superpower would you choose?” And he must have replied in that same strange tonal language, “I would choose to never need food and, consequently, never need the loo too. Armed thus I would be capable of uninterrupted travel over significantly far-reaching distances. Legendary leaders who commanded great armies, and who a man from Laos such as myself may, or may not have heard of, would be rotten to the core with jealousy upon hearing of my power. Think of Alexander the Great who had to climb off and back on to his Great elephant every time he needed a waz! Think of Richard the Lionheart who, travelling to-and-from the crusades literally lost his portable lavatory a total of five seperate times and was forced, in front of his Christian knights, to shit in passing bushes! Think of Joan d’Arc, who, posing as a man, had to pee standing up!
“I will forever appear godlike in the eyes of others and if, in some unknown future circumstance, I choose to become a bus driver, my passengers will be forced to pluck supplies from passing trees and let loose through back-seat windows.”
Friend One, “I’d choose flight.” and Friend Two: “No way man! I’d choose invisibility.”
Many years later and our driver has laughed enough at our inadequacy. He needs us alive so we can pay him. He stops the bus and lets us off. Food! We search around for fried rice. Two metres later we give up. No luck. We settle for whatever this lady is displaying in her various cauldrons. Ah, what’s this? Rats on sticks? Haha! No thanks! I wouldn’t be caught dead with rat-on-a-stick. Our fellow German travellers obviously feel the same and steer well clear. We all go for the safer option: a meaty salad and sticky rice. Mark and I sit down with an English-speaking Laotian and the Germans sit behind him. We manage some pleasantries through the overwhelming urge to eat. Our superhuman driver passes by, disdain clearly visible on his face.
The meat we’re eating is intriguing Mark. It tastes thick like liver, rough like elderly sheep, dirty with overtones of soil. We ask our Laotian friend who tells us the Lao name. Well it’s definitely not beef, chicken or pork then. Those names I do know.
“Do you know it in English?” I ask.
“Ah… No. Sorry!”
“Well is it yaiy [big] or nid noi [tiny]?” I use my arms to demonstrate.
“Yes! It’s nid noi.”
I pause. “Like rat?”
“Yes. That’s the name!” He grins, pleased to be of assistance.
“Mmm. Thanks.” I try a smile. Mark nods soberly. The Germans, who have been listening with interest put down their forks of the stuff abruptly. One of them stands up, and leaving the table, walks quickly away. The other leans back in his chair and stares into the distance as if remembering a time, long ago, when his life was good and his journeys easy.
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