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.