In May 1974, a freighter departed from Darwin. Aboard were a 24-year-old American and his Australian friend, who was not quite 21. Charlie Dean and Neil Sharman slept on deck rather than waste money on a cabin and used their packs as pillows. When the ship docked in Timor, they saw rugged mountains rising along an aqua coast. Fishermen cast nets into the sea, and, along the road, women walked from villages with jugs of water or bundled husks of corn balanced atop their heads. Farmers worked water buffaloes in rice paddies, prodding them gently with long sticks. The children were beautiful. Dark-skinned, their wide mouths smiling with white teeth, they looked a mix of Asian and Portuguese whose seventeenth century missions stood as monuments to colonialism.
The two young men were eager for travel and did not hang around Timor long. They hopped boats to Jawa and Jakarta and moved on into Sumatra, traveling overland by crowded bus, hitchhiking when they could and walking much of the way. The people of Indonesia were friendly, offering the strangers fruit or bowls of rice. The language was not difficult to learn and with a combination of English, a few Indonesian words, and hand signals, they were able to find their way around.
Even though they were making their own timetable, Charlie felt the pinch of time. The months he’d spent at Rosebud Farm in Far North Queensland trying to chart his life’s course had gone by in a blink, and the next six months no doubt would fly by. Yet already he missed the farm. On the other hand, there would be much to tell his friends when he saw them again. He owed it to Neil to make sure they had experiences they would never forget.
On the first of June, they caught a boat to Malaysia, stopping briefly in Singapore, a big, dirty city, before making their way to Kuala Lumpur by train, bus, and thumbing rides. Charlie had grown up in New York City, but in the last year he’d changed, and he wanted nothing to do with concrete and urban hustle of Kuala Lumpur. He urged Neil on to Thailand.
In Bangkok rooms and food were cheap. The people were friendly and even spoke a little English. The young men decided to make the city their base from which they would make trips to Cambodia and Laos, returning to Bangkok to plan the rest of their route. Charlie bought candlefruit nuts to send back to Rosebud. For the women on the commune he browsed markets and dickered over a fertility pig and a Buddha head and sent the gifts to the farm along with letters, promising he would see his comrades at Rosebud again soon.
Thailand’s rains were still a month away and when they trekked north, they found the landscape scruffy and dry. It was the burning season, when fields were cleared of debris from the harvest, and the land lay under a perpetual gray haze. They worked their way to San Chai, several hours' walk from the nearest road and one of the oldest villages in Thailand. Bamboo huts littered dusty hilltops and Akha tribespeople, bronze men with ponytails or shaven heads, chopped at fields of bamboo. Beautiful women wrapped in black-beaded and embroidered cloth were adorned with heavy silver necklaces and bracelets.
None of the Akha villagers knew even a little English, and a native escorted them to the chief, who spoke a bit of broken English. The chief was about Charlie’s age and invited the newcomers to dine in his hut with a few other citizens from the village. They folded their legs on the dirt floor around a cooking fire. In a corner a man sat cross-legged, one hand on a machine gun across his knees. He kept his eyes on the strangers but said nothing. Charlie didn’t like guns. He would not make any moves that would give the man in the corner a reason to raise his rifle.
The men scooped rice from a pot, pressed it into little balls and tossed the rice pellets into their mouths, and Charlie and Neil imitated the process, smiling and gesturing thanks. At one point a scrawny chicken scurried across the floor. One man grabbed it and twisted its head, plucked its feathers and set it to roast over the fire intact—comb, feet and all. When he deemed it done, he heaved a cleaver into the bird, splintering bones over the ground, and then tossed the pieces into the pot to enhance the meal.
As darkness fell, the other guests departed, leaving Neil and Charlie with the chief and a man who looked to be in his forties. The man lit a candle and an opium lamp and then took to a straw mat next to the chief. The ancestors of the older man, the chief said, had fled from the armies of Kublai Khan. With his high cheekbones, his gleaming black eyes and shining shock of black hair, he might in another time have been a Mongol warrior.
With clean, easy motions, the man twirled a clump of opium on a needle over the low flame, and compressed it gently between thumb and forefinger. When he had a mass the size and consistency of a rabbit pellet, he pressed the stuff into the small bowl of the chief’s pipe. The chief tilted the bowl over the flame, drawing hard and evenly. The opium sputtered and bubbled like melting molasses, and clouds of sweet, pungent smoke rose up slowly to the thatch of the roof.
Several times on previous evenings Charlie had passed up opportunities to smoke opium, but now he was lured by the flickering lamplight of the bamboo hut and the dark Akha men who had spent nights observing this ritual for the last thousand years.
He drew on the pipe and liked the saccharine taste. He accepted another invitation to puff from the pipe, and then another. Lying on a mat, he sank into a warm glow and fell asleep.
The following evening the ceremony was repeated, but on the third night, Charlie excused himself. He was feeling weak from the sweltering heat, a single meal a day, and the effects of the drug. Neil seemed glad to retreat, too. Besides, Cambodia awaited them.
For the last year, the Khmer Rouge army had attacked supply boats coming along the Mekong River from South Vietnam into Cambodia’s capital. When their attempts were foiled, first by the rainy season and then by counterattacks, the Khmer Rouge altered their tactics and terrorized the city with artillery fire and 107mm rockets. It appeared for a while that these attacks against civilians would succeed. But once again the Cambodian government withstood the barrage and the capital held, albeit with a delicate grip. When the dry season came to a close in June, the Khmer Rouge maintained a tight stranglehold on Phnom Penh, but without a victory.
Charlie was wary about entering Phnom Penh in late July, but he had heard the city was now quiet and, besides, he had committed himself to seeing the wreckage. It was one thing to talk about war; it was another to stand at its center and feel the hostility. To Charlie, it was obvious that the U.S. was still involved in the conflict, if not with soldiers, then by supplying weapons and ammunition, half of which were sold to the Khmer Rouge. Charlie had read that the 1973 Paris Agreement included a ban on infiltration of arms or personnel to reinforce North Vietnamese troops in the South, as well as a ban on the use of Laotian or Cambodian territory for that purpose, but the U.S. was allowed to continue to supply arms to the army of the Republic of Vietnam. It looked like the Paris Agreement was no more than a piece of paper.
The streets of Phnom Penh resembled a war-torn migrant camp. The Cambodians were friendly, but when Charlie attempted to ask a few if they knew what the civil war was about, they had no idea. Neither did the Laotian refugees, even though they were the war’s victims. At night Charlie and Neil tried to sleep through the booming of artillery fired across the Mekong. Had everyone in the U.S. forgotten about the war—or were they too caught up in the Watergate hearings to care? Did Americans know that their own government was encouraging the fighting by supplying both sides with weapons? The situation was not only ridiculous, but it smelled to Charlie of genocide.
When the two men returned to Bangkok, Charlie admitted that the road was beginning to wear on him. He had thought he might be able to lend a hand to the people of war-torn areas, but he hadn’t expected to be overwhelmed by their desperate circumstances and the crushing futility they felt. What little encouragement he and Neil brought them was swallowed up by the threat of another surge of violence. It was time to think about themselves.
In a letter to Rosebud, Charlie said that he would be leaving Bangkok the next day for Laos and would most likely be gone a month. Then he and Neil would stop back in Bangkok before heading on to Nepal. “But if it gets cold before I finally leave Bangkok, I may zip back to my chooks,” he wrote. He was still tempted to go back to the farm. Again he said he “probably/maybe” would be in the States by Christmas to see his family. He ended the letter with, “Take care and stay warm in your heart. With love, Charlie.”
The subtext of “if” and “may” and “probably” indicated that Charlie was having reservations about this journey. Something was telling him he was on the wrong path. Just before he left Bangkok, he penned an enigmatic, troubling letter to Rosebud. Charlie’s syntax was eloquent and animated, but the Rosebud farmers puzzled over the contents. It was as if Charlie were trying to sort out some conflict among his intellect, his intuition, and his heart. The letter read:
There once was a young man with two perfectly good heads. He was sort
of proud—after all, two heads are better than one—and he was sort of bummed
out because he had the hardest time making decisions. He had a successful youth
and did many things that most people with just one head only dream of. He went
on a trip, and one head sort of lost interest, and the other head, previously
described as uninspired, or at least under-developed, started to bloom. And it
told the heart (there was only one) to feel its best ever because here were friends
and love that the other head had never imagined. But just as the two heads
reached equilibrium, the education ended. The examination had begun and
continues to this day. The young man continues to roam and, as in all good
examinations, he is learning while he is being tested. And both heads are doing
marvelously well. Too well, in fact. Decisions don’t come easily except a
decision by the heart not to choose. For the heart loves both heads equally and
has been touched in return by both. There is a happy ending, but it is not written.
For the heart is comforted by the words of a brother, “It will happen, that’s cool,
just let it happen.” And so it will, my brothers, because above all, peace and love
and wisdom and harmony will be served.
Love to you all, Charlie.
In spite of his self-examination, Charlie still believed things would turn out well for him. But he seemed to be trying too hard to convince himself. A first postscript to the letter indicated that he and Neil would be in Bangkok until August 22, and thereafter Charlie could be reached in care of American Peace Corps in Kamaldi, Nepal.
Charlie was pigheaded, and he was going to follow through with the trip, no matter what signs he saw to turn back. Using his wit and his eloquence, he had always been able to handle any situation. He convinced himself there was no reason to worry, and he and Neil set out for Laos.
Once known as Lan Xang, land of the million elephants, Laos was under the control of various warlords until the 1820s, when it was overtaken by Siam, now Thailand. Shortly afterward, France acquired all land east of the Mekong River, including Laos, and united the local provinces under one principality. French civil servants built grand estates in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, which still stand as monuments to colonial history, but not much else besides thick coffee and remnants of French phrases remain of France’s influence.
During World War II, the Japanese invaded Indochina and in 1945 the French again liberated the region. Shortly thereafter, the Pathet Lao formed, using weapons supplied by the Soviets. In 1961, the United States threatened military intervention to halt the spread of communism and the following year launched an unpublicized war against the Pathet Lao, who allied themselves with North Vietnam communists. That war would last until just months before Charlie and Neil entered Laos. Although Charlie had an inkling about the American political and economic scene, there was not much news about U.S. activities in Southeast Asia. If he and Neil knew of the recent unrest, they chose to ignore it and walk straight into the turmoil.
On the pavement of the ancient royal capital Luang Prabang, Buddhist monks knelt in their orange robes as they had done for centuries to receive offerings of food from the townspeople. Luang Prabang, reputed to be the most beautiful city in Southeast Asia, was named for the gold image of Buddha, the Phrabang. The seat of Lao culture, the city was decorated with exquisitely carved Buddhist temples and breathtaking natural beauty.
Situated at the junction of the Nom Khan and Mekong rivers, Luang Prabang moved at a slow, sleepy pace, even with a population of two hundred thousand people. Surrounded by the peaceful spirit of the Buddhists, Charlie felt drawn to the city. Except for the China-capped soldiers with machine guns under arms or slung on their backs, he might have been enticed to stay. But in the eyes of the soldiers, he could see there was something fomenting.
Nevertheless, he and Neil idled their time. They treated themselves to dinner at a restaurant, ordering chateaubriand, beans, carrots, and French bread, accompanied by beer, wine and coffee. After dozens of plates of fried rice and bowls of noodle soup, the taste of good steak brought them nearly to tears of pleasure. The bill amounted to $1.75 each, after which Neil lit a cigarette, sat back in his chair, and smiled at their good fortune. Other nights they alternated beef Bourguignon with delicious venison. Mekong whisky was thirty cents a pint, and a pack of cigarettes made from American tobacco cost a dime. Sixteen fat, ready-rolled reefers could be had for seven cents.
For a week they indulged themselves and then headed down to Vientiane, where the crushing heat drove them into an American library to read old issues of Sports Illustrated. They checked into a hotel, a creaky old wooden relic from French colonial days that took up a half a city block and boasted long concrete verandahs with large shuttered windows.
Most days they arose at nine in the morning, took a shower under a pathetic drizzle that faintly resembled plumbing, and wandered down to a café for croissants and coffee. From noon until after five they sipped Mekong whiskey or forty-cent Heinekens, when finally it was cool enough to walk around back streets lined with old villas and fan palms or down to the end of the Avenue Lan Xang to Monument-aux-Morts, a garish mockery of L’Arc de Triomphe. Because it was built with cement donated by the U.S. government to expand the airstrip at Wattay Airport, the monument was known as “the vertical runway.”
At the marketplace, Meo tribespeople sold their hand woven material, Indians offered bolts of voile and silk, Vietnamese displayed black silk and Chinaware, and Laotian merchants loitered over silver and gold brocade items. All the vendors chatted and gossiped with none of the hustling or hawking of wares common in the rest of Asia.
Across from the market stood the compound of the Pathet Lao, well barricaded and guarded. The Pathet Lao troops, identified by their Chinese caps and baggy trousers, browsed through the market or along the streets, some wearing the green arm bands of the Coalition Army. Except for the ever-present machine guns, they seemed little threat to the marketplace.
It is said that Laos is not a place but a state of mind. In spite of the presence of the soldiers, Charlie fell into what the French refer to as “malaise Laotian," a lethargy that robs one of ambition to do more than linger in cafes all day. This state of torpor produces a sort of forgetfulness where conflict or peril seems a vague afterthought. But the seduction of this malaise makes a man vulnerable. He relaxes his guard and reverts to old, comfortable habits. For Charlie, those habits included speaking his mind and enjoying a good argument, and he engaged Neil in impassioned conversations. But on the street he held his tongue. Even Charlie sensed that one did not argue with the Pathet Lao.
Days of inactivity brought on the rumblings of restlessness, and finally they made a decision to move on toward Thakhek. But how to get there? The roads were abominable. After debate, they decided that the most efficient and logical mode of transportation was a ferry boat down the Mekong.
LOUELLA BRYANThas won numerous awards for her short stories and poems. Louella teaches creative writing in the Spalding University MFA in Writing program in Louisville and mentors young writers at the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf.