Friday, April 6, 2012

Quo Vadis?

Quo vadis? Bpai nai? A donde va? (I can't do this in French because I don't know how to do accent marks here.) It's a sure sign of who I am that "Where are you going?" is a key phrase for me in several languages. Somehow I grew up misinterpreting the phrase "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." I don't know how I learned to take that as "Grab your passport and take off."

But there are vague indications that bed bugs may be growing from eggs to maturity in my apartment and my reaction hasn't been "I have to move to another apartment" but "I have to move to another country--one where DDT hasn't been banned." This is probably not a sane response to invasion by vermin, but it is mine.

The irony for me is that this time around I was prepared to stay. I was ready to wrinkle up and write in my little Chinatown apartment for the rest of my days. Unlike other U.S. sojourns when I got comfortable and cozy with the knowledge that it was going to be a temporary state of affairs.

But in this new domicile I have almost no furniture, I am unable to ask people to come over for fear that they will go home packing unseen hitch-hikers, I still have scars on my left arm which was covered with bites two months ago, and in February I spent twelve hours on the street while my apartment underwent fumigation. My landlord and his assistant informed me with gentle raillery the other day that golly gee yes they were fairly sure I was over-reacting when I learned I shared my apartment with bed bugs. I thought of the nights I was awakened by violent itching and tried not to look for something big and potentially lethal to throw at them as they relapsed into innocent merriment. Not funny, suckers, not one tiny bit.

I look on Craigslist and the apartments I can afford are all of the same vintage and ilk as the one I live in now--100 years old. lots of wood--and my inner alarm begins to jangle. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run...except to parts of the world where toxins are essential facts of life. Ecuador? Argentina? Deepest Peru?

Perhaps what is occasionally biting me is a colony of carpet mites--would that make a difference? It would for me. A bite or two every week I could live with. An arm swollen with bites and little fluid-filled pustules on the bones of my fingers--not acceptable.

Very few people react to the saliva of bed bugs. I do. If they are here, breeding and growing, it will soon be no secret to me. Or to any of you, because my screams of outrage and horror will float all across the Pacific Rim. Let us pray...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Report

"After living there a month, I could write a book. After a year I could write a post card."

Travel writing is easy--spend a month in a country, write about what you saw, what you did, what you ate. Flesh it out with answers you received to questions, what you thought about what you saw and heard, perhaps augment it with a romance on the road--voila! When done well, it's Dervla Murphy. When done badly, it's Eat, Pray, Love. When done grouchily, it's Paul Theroux. When done thoughtfully, it's Pico Iyer.

But if you stay in a country, your questions become more and more difficult to answer. Sometimes they become unanswerable. Sometimes they become unspeakable.

I've traveled in Southern Laos and was always taken aback by how sparsely populated the countryside is--more like rural Alaska than neighboring Thailand. After making half a dozen trips, I finally wrote about what I saw on a journey there, concluding with what I would never know as a tourist, unless I spent a long time of commitment to the place.

Then I read a manuscript written by a woman who has traveled deeply in Laos for over seven years. Her questions are piercing ones and she uses interpreters to get truthful answers. What I learned from Karen Coates about the countryside I journeyed through is that it's wild and unpopulated because the land holds death beneath its surface.

It's a legacy from the US, unexploded ordinance, UXO, that lurks beneath the ground that Lao people depend upon for their livelihoods. Much of the country's farmland holds bombs of all sizes, waiting to explode half a century after they were dropped. Farmers who traditionally grew food now dig up lethal metal that they will sell for scrap. It's "free"--the only cost is a limb or a face or a life.

The country is filled with death under the soil. Slowly, painstakingly, not fast enough, teams of detectors and detonators comb every inch of the areas they are sent to. One man, American Jim Harris, goes to places considered less risky than others, where people are injured or die from UXO frequently. The places are considered less risky because Laos is graded on a curve and the bar for danger is set quite high.

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern is not travel literature, but anyone who is going to travel in Laos should read it, for their own safety's sake as well as to understand where they are and what they are looking at. It will take its place beside Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Silent Spring and Earth in the Balance as a book that is going to help change the world--if it isn't too late for that to happen.