June, 2006, Laos: By candlelight, within the close music of a steady rain, we sat in a long-house in a Khmu village on the Nam Ta River, eating supper with the village chief. A small boy with a runny nose wearing soiled pants lay on his leg trying to sleep. We had come by kayak to visit these villagers, who live in a protected park where no development can occur. And we had questions.
"How long does it take to drive to town," asked one young Canadian girl, innocently. Once translated by our guide, the chief and others gathered at the table laughed. To get to town -- Luang Nam Tha -- the villagers must walk five hours through the jungle, then hire a tuk-tuk to drive them to the small town, once they meet a dirt road, said the chief.
Ruth, a friendly Danish woman, said she felt as though she had never been this far from civilization. Indeed, we were in the middle of virgin Laos jungle, surrounded by jagged mountains coated in trees and dramatic mist. There was no electricity, no running water -- nothing but bamboo-and-thatch huts, pigs, chickens, ducks, cattle, water buffalo, dogs, and children as young as five carrying newborn babies.
A young British guy, full of idealism, asked the chief if he was elected democratically or became the chief by inheritance. We learned that he is elected. And we nodded our heads, as if telling the chief we approved of his civilized ways. It was an awkward moment.
As I went to sleep in a long-house, listening to the rain, in the most complete darkness I have ever experienced, I started wondering: why exactly am I here? A postmodern man in a modernizing country asks himself this question many times during his travels, let me tell you. I have yet to answer it.
I do not buy into the Western traveler's ideal of finding 'authenticity' buried deep in some jungle. During the busy season, the jungle village we visited receives tourists three times a week. Attached to many houses were small solar panels for electricty, to power televisions. One girl carried a bag of rice by putting the strap around her head. In the bag played dance music on a radio. Like many of the treks I have done to villages off the path in Southeast Asia, the children here know exactly what to do when cameras came out and were pointed at them. They posed, they giggled, they provided perfect shots for travelers to take home and show their friends.
I am reading Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. What an amazing writer. Henderson is a rich brat of an American who goes to Africa seeking spiritual rebirth. He arrives in far off villages hoping to stop his constant need to become something, and to just be. I see me in him. I think Westerners are endlessly becoming, endlessly searching the future for a new way, a new dream, a new identity. And we're sick of it. In this village, surrounded by animals, I realized what we have lost despite our achievements: a connection to bigger things, to the realities of life, death, survival. Our dinner, a duck, was killed then plucked of feathers in front of us. Several of the people on the trip felt squeamish about this -- but where do they think their food comes from? Would they prefer their poultry to be raised in a factory farm, or allow it to waddle around free, in a village? How ironic it is that we can call these people 'savage' yet in the south of Laos, the savagery of the Americans is everywhere, in huge bomb craters and unexploded bombs that tear legs off children to this day.
By 8:30, the village was pitch black except for a few candles. I felt tired and fell asleep. I somehow fell in tune with nature in a way that is impossible among the lights and distractions of civilization. But still, why was I here? I enjoyed meeting these people and seeing how they live. I felt connected to them, despite our differences. I envied the simplicity of their life. But people like me, who pay big dollars to hire a guide to take them to far off places, are part of the problem. Becky says backpackers are part of the "new colonialism." She's right. We come this time seeking authenticity; we leave having helped to destroy it, after capturing 'authenticity' on our cameras. After taking their picture, the village kids demanded to see it on my digital display. They're part of our world whether we want to admit it or not.
All of us on the kayak trip experienced guilt as we realized the scope of the new colonialism.
But despite the pessimism, I think that in the end Westerners are still good people, with good motives. While it rained on us kayaking down the river, every one of us — two Canadians, a Brit, and two Danes — lay back in the kayak and opened our arms to receive the rain. We fell silent and smiled. We have purity and goodness, just like the village people. We have spirit.
I wish travelers would look around and see the true authenticity of Laos — a country desperate to have what we have. Who are we to hope that they don't modernize and that they remain 'authentic'? The more thoughtful travelers recognize this and find excitement in the increasingly smaller differences between people. In Laos, for example, there is no machismo. Men hold hands, rest their heads on each other's laps on busses, walk arm and arm down the street. Life is easier and less governed by silly sexual stigmatisms here. That's authentic, at least.
I found satisfaction to the question I posed to the chief. "Do you see the future as being good for your people, or bad?" I asked. I expected the chief to speak of his fears of the slow creep of modernity squeezing out his traditional ways. But instead, he spoke hopefully. "For many years, our country was at war. Our people couldn't have crops, rice paddies. They constantly had to move. Now, we have time. We can have crops, we are not hungry. Now our children can go to school."
That's authenticity, I think. It isn't ideal, it's just real.