“Mom, I think I have, you know, the travelers stomach thing.” Having all had the “travelers stomach thing” at various points in our journey I knew that the affliction can vary significantly in terms of severity and symptoms. I also knew that the most important thing generally needed was something we did not have easy access to, a toilet.
“Oh, dear! Well, how bad do you need to go?” (Well, gee, would he have referred to it as the travelers’ stomach thing if he didn’t have to go pretty badly?)
“You better ask the driver to stop" was my response. I figured the driver would be more inclined to respond if the request came directly from a child in need.
As I watched my son weave his way to the front of the bus my own stomach started doing triple time. We were about four hours into the journey between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang on the “road not recommended for nervous persons” as described in a Lao tourist magazine. We had heard horror stories about the trip; decrepit vehicles, regular break downs, barrier free treacherously steep and winding mountain passes and even, God forbid, Hmong bandits! But these stories had to be at least a few years old.
So far the trip had not lived up to expectations. We were on a comfortable bus with a driver who seemed to be maneuvering the switch backs, the cows, ducks, goats and occasional rock piles with caution and grace. It was certainly not the easiest ride we had had but neither was it the toughest. Were things about to change? My poor son.
He is back in his seat but within what seems like seconds he weaves to the front to ask again. This process is repeated about 5 times and I can’t believe the composure and maturity my son is demonstrating. We are on a road that is practically impossible to stop on and there is not a heck of a lot the driver can do. Finally, a place where he can pull off….
I am rather paralyzed as my son disembarks. There is a flurry of activity outside the bus. An entire village stops. Villagers rush to the monstrous vehicle. No one speaks a word of English and judging from the reactions we can see having a bus stop here is definitely not an every day occurrence. Somehow my son is able to communicate what he needs. Amidst the goats, chickens, cows and cats he is ushered to what could be called an outhouse. Young and old, two legged and four legged stand staring. Other tourists on the bus want to take pictures of the villagers but it is clear that the villagers are not happy with this and the bus driver intervenes, no pictures please!
The entire bus and the entire village wait for my son to emerge. His travelers’ stomach has been dealt with for the time being. We are back on the road and again the journey is proving as interesting as the destination.
As the bus zig zags through the switch backs the views that we are offered are pretty spectacular. The valley villages and limestone karsts are almost a photographer’s dream. The scenery would be perfect were it not for the large swaths of decimated forests that prove shocking evidence of how the exploitation of the country’s natural resources appears to continue unabated. Rumor has it that corrupt Laos officials regularly accept bribes from large Vietnamese and Chinese interests in return for turning a blind eye to illegal forestry practices carried out on land leased (practically given) to these parties. Market demand for cheap furniture in our own country fuels the fire. Tropical forests throughout Laos are being destroyed, the trees sent to Vietnamese factories where the wood eventually transforms into lovely furniture pieces that is bound straight for North America. Do we know where all of our “stuff” originated? The people of Laos whose livelihoods have depended upon the forest for years lose their land as their interest in it is handed over to foreign parties. As they see their country stripped of its beauty and its resources the poverty continues.