On my first full day back in town Chom was taking a day off work to travel the 60km to his wife’s village, to pick her up and bring her home. He works up to 18 hours a day, six days a week now, in two jobs (tuk tuk driving and managing the hotel I am staying at), so she has been staying with her mother and grandfather. Their second child is due in a few weeks and she should be near town and health services. Her mother’s home is a typical elevated wooden style set beside a beautiful shady, treelined dirt track running parallel to the Mekong. The drive there involves crossing the busy bridge over the Mekong, then turning into the riverside villages onto ungraded, weather damaged rural dirt lanes. You can also travel on the southern side of the Mekong which is bitumenised for a longer time, for two thirds of the journey, then take a ferry to the other side. We took this route on our way home as he thought it would be less uncomfortable for his very pregnant wife. The journey along either route by tuk tuk takes between 2.5 to 3 hours, which gives a vague idea of how rough it is.
At 7am our first stop was a rice warehouse for 50kg of rice to deliver to the blind widow and her frail parents. They live in a village hidden behind acres of corn fields off the beaten track, probably 20km from town. We last visited them in March, at which time her lame father, who has an extremely debilitated gait, explained that his legs have been deformed and crippled since he was very young. He developed a fever, from which his disability emerged. That is all he knows about why his legs are so maimed. My guess is Polio. He told us then, that he has been trying to get a hand-pedalled wheelchair, via the relevant people in the village, for “a long time”. They (perhaps the local health centre?) always agree but it has never been forthcoming. Yesterday we arrived to the sight of Dad and his brother sitting in the doorway of their elevated, banana leaf and bamboo shack. When he realised who we were, he climbed down the ladder to greet us while calling out to everyone excitedly. We were directed to climb the ladder into the house, Chom with 50kg of rice on his back and me following behind, kicking our shoes off at the bottom step.
During our visit I asked again about the wheelchair and Dad repeated that “they” continue to be agreeable without acting. I told Chom how easy it was for me to get a chair like this for another person and suggested maybe we could do it ourselves for him? Chom was surprised and questioned me somewhat before turning to translate my offer. As he did so, the old man’s face lit up and he beamed at me. Immediately his brother launched into a monologue aimed at me, which Chom translated as “it is really nice that even though you are from another part of the world, they had good luck to meet you and we can be friends and work together. They are really lucky that they meet you”. He then explained that the old man goes to the pagoda every week and it is very difficult to get there, sometimes he crawls on his bum, other times he goes on the back of someone’s bicycle, but his legs get mangled in the wheels. We arranged a time and day to meet in town next week so that we can get the ball rolling. This morning Chom and I went to Handicap International who confirmed they can supply a chair and gave us some more detail about arranging this. Chom then called the family to explain the logistics involved and it’s all going ahead. Project Number One underway! I can also tick off my to-do list, that this week I “just stopped” to help an elderly person in some small way.
After about half an hour sitting on the bamboo strip floorboards looking below us to the chickens wandering on the dirt floor under the house, we headed off towards our destination. About half an hour into this leg of our journey we turned at a fork in the road and found ourselves in an Islamic village where a lot of interesting activity kept me entertained. Grass being manually chopped with small knives, motorbike loads of grass hiding all but the driver’s head, so that it seems a human head is being transported by a mobile bundle of grass. Herds of free range goats wandering across the road, mosques instead of pagodas, and all of a sudden a black motorbike with three grown men departing the front yard of a house and stopping almost still across the middle of the single lane track and staring at us, wide-eyed!
In what seemed like slow motion Chom swerved to the side in an attempt to avoid them, crashed into their front wheel and the tuk tuk wheels veered into a sandy embankment. Unable to keep up with the swerving, the tuk tuk rolled, and I was flung out of the side. As my head hit the ceiling, then the side bars, before I was launched out of the cab, I was thinking “my life is supposed to flash before my eyes but it’s not, so I must be going to survive this”. We were traveling at around 20km/hr, after all! I landed on the sandy mound lining the side of the road and the tuk tuk followed, landing neatly on it’s side squarely around me so that I was inside an enclosed patch of sand, invisible to the world outside the four walls of my temporary cage. A lump on my forehead, a lump on the back of my head, a swollen and painful little finger seemed to be the only pain and after a moment, surrounded by dead silence on what had been a busy road in an active village, I called out to Chom “are you okay?”. I heard a “Yes!” from somewhere outside my cage.
A woman in green walked onto the embankment and leaned under the roof of the tuk tuk which had stopped short on the trunk of a banana plant, to peer in on me. She walked away saying something which sounded like reassurances that the Barang was okay. I grabbed the trunk of the banana plant, pulled myself up, leaning down to avoid hitting my head on the tuk tuk cage enclosing me, and awkwardly climbed through the overturned tuk tuk, jumping through the other side onto the track. A crowd of villagers was growing along the opposite side of the road, staring silently at me as though anticipating a reaction. Chom was standing on the side of the track in stunned silence but when I appeared he began an animated discussion with the other driver. They re-enacted events on foot, apparently arguing. When I asked was the other driver blaming him, he replied “no! I am blaming him! What was he doing staying there like that!”. Some of them pulled the tuk tuk upright and pushed it over to the roadside and Chom started assessing the damage.
Shaking myself off, rubbing the dirt from my clothes and noticing some mud which smelled suspiciously like cow pooh on one sleeve, the crowd continued to stare at me. I made eye contact with a young Islamic guy in a flat white scalp-hugging kulfi, smiled at him and he looked taken aback. This, combined with what felt like a village full of people staring at me in apparent astonishment that a Barang had just been thrown from a tuk tuk on their land, I began laughing. This set the crowd off and we stood around laughing uncontrollably while Chom and the other driver beat each other up verbally. .
Satisfied that it was only minor damage, Chom said “let’s go” so I climbed into the tuk tuk, waved at my new friends, and we disappeared from each other’s lives as the laughter faded out, replaced by some worrying moans and groans from Chom’s old motorbike until he managed to get up to a normal speed. Clearly shaken, he was very quiet for the first twenty minutes or so, as I sat quietly behind him trying to look serious. Soon enough he looked at me in the rear vision and we started laughing. He shouted out to me “Helen! Now I am not handsome! Look at me! I put this shirt for my wife but now I am dirty!”. Not handsome? That set me off again! Then he shouted out “Please don’t tell anyone! Because I am shy!”. “I won’t” I replied, thinking slyly except for the blog I’m writing about it. Then he called out “I wanted to ask if you were okay but you asked me first! You said the words first and I was so shocked because when I looked inside my tuk tuk, you were not there! I thought oh my god, where did she go? Then I found you, and you were lying inside the banana leaves and flowers!”. We have not stopped laughing since, and he keeps telling me “you said the words I wanted to say but you were not there!” Sworn to secrecy, I had to hug his wife smothered in dirt, smelling like cow pooh, with a straight face! She did a double take at me and he apparently told her there had been a small accident “but I will not tell her that you were lying on the ground, she will be very upset if I say this”.
She and her mother had cooked fried beef and ginger with vegetable soup and rice which we ate at a wooden bed base on the dirt floor underneath the house, joined by free range chickens and roosters pecking at our feet. What a contrast between this delicious meal and the last delicious home cooked meal I’d had, on the hillside at Patricia Wells’ luxurious property in Provence a fortnight ago! Lunch was followed by a snooze in a hammock under an elevated hayshed on the riverbank before Microphone’s bicycle was tied into the tuk tuk and we climbed aboard and headed home. As we approached the ferry terminal, very near to the scene of our accident, Chom decided to turn off and take the ferry over to the other side, where we had, albeit pothole-ridden, bitumen almost the whole way home.
The route home passes Paua’s village, so we stopped in on her and I managed to chat with the family about the possible American mercy mission we are hoping will happen for her. Various logistics were discussed with Chom as translator. The family are thrilled and when I explained that it might not happen because there are many possible obstacles, her mother said “even if it does not happen, we really appreciate that this doctor knows about her and wants to help her”. I took photographs of her wounds, and of their home and village life, which I’ve since sent to America. Project Number Two underway!
Between our projects, the accident, the motorbike engine seeming to fail, the bike kangaroo hopping as we ran out of petrol (thankfully only about a kilometre from the next bamboo stall selling fuel out of coca cola bottles) and then the usual unexpected help and friendliness that people offer along the way, it was an adventurous, entertaining and productive day. No wonder I slept like a baby last night!