Saturday, 10 September 2011

Refocus


It is disarming how quickly the eye accustoms itself to the unfamiliar. On the bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang we slowly left a small city behind and drove through flooded paddy fields into the rural hinterland of Laos’ capital. The plains eventually gave way to mountain ranges, and the space available for human settlements steadily decreased. From a city of concrete and brick, we made our way into a landscape that was populated by villages composed of bamboo shacks on stilts. Easy. I’ve browsed copies of National Geographic in the dentist’s waiting room, I’ve seen The Human Planet online – bamboo shacks are nothing to get excited about. The eye accustoms itself, and we drive past family homes constructed of the flimsiest material that I can imagine, the cheapest, most readily available material, material that is easily replaced in the event of a storm or flood. Yet the ease with which the eye soaks up these new exotic visions elides some pretty obvious questions. How do you put running water into a bamboo shack? How do you put plumbing into a bamboo shack? My guess is that you don’t. Likewise I would guess that you don’t have a solid wall to screw an electrical socket to plug in your fridge and keep the food fresh. Who collects the rubbish from outside a bamboo shack up the side of a mountain? Maybe that is the reason behind the ever-present clouds of thin blue smoke, as the rubbish is burnt and the plastic releases its toxic stream of dioxins into the mountain air.

The bus pulls over outside a bigger shack where food is served and passengers can use a toilet. Children push their way onto the bus, balancing large metal dishes containing bags of sliced fruit and packets of something indeterminate and fried. The youngest are scarcely bigger than Oisin, and with a mischievous glint in their eye try to sell him some snacks. How lazily the eye welcomes the smiles and entreaties of the children to buy their wares, how quickly I have learnt to casually shrug off their badgering. Then I check the time. It’s a weekday and it’s just after lunchtime. Is it na├»ve to ask if these kids should be in school? The driver’s assistant on one of our longer bus trips was about thirteen years old, and wore a t-shirt with a striking graphic and the slogan “Stop Child Labour”. He took our back-breaking backpacks from us and loaded them into the hold. He didn’t seem to be a living embodiment of irony, so was his t-shirt just a freebie someone had given him, or did he no longer consider himself a child and was campaigning on behalf of his younger brethren? For the first time my conscience has me squirming in a bus seat as the boy stood on the steps of the bus and stared open-mouthed at Oisin watching some cartoon on our little netbook. His eyes don’t refocus so easily when confronted with the casual wealth of the western traveller child. Shall I let him know that I’ll write a hand-wringing piece about him on an internet blog that he’ll never see (would he be able to read it if he did?), or just send a donation to Oxfam and hope that a few pennies trickle down into his bamboo shack?

A scooter wobbles past us somewhere in Cambodia. An obese middle-aged Western man is driving, a petite Asian girl is clutching on to a small portion of his expansive girth. A couple on a scooter – my eye doesn’t blink. Then another, then another. A couple of laughing British men sit down at a table on the beach, followed by two dainty Cambodian women less than half their age, and then their siblings. The British men don’t bother to talk to the two women: do they even speak their language? The women, in turn, concern themselves with their smaller sisters and brothers. Presumably all will eat at the table of the unstinting British males – I try to stop myself wondering what price might be exacted later once the children are in bed. My eye is repelled by the endless succession of ugly white men towing pretty young Asian women behind them. I don’t know the numbers, but surely this many cases of “romantic love” are statistically improbable? We debate: Pati rankles at my view of the women as economic victims of predatory western males, while I can’t accept her view that they are still agents of their own destiny, even if hitching up with a flabby foreigner is the quickest way out of poverty for them.

Here’s the text from the restaurant in Luang Prabang that I mentioned in the last post. I don’t think it answers any of these questions. Maybe it prompted them.