However, the missionary was far from despondent. There were Meos in the mountains not far from Vientiane, and just as in the plateaux of Vietnam the Moi’s had not rejected the Gospel, so here the primitive peoples of the mountains seemed promising material for evangelisation. There would be no risk of jeopardising conversion by hunting, among such hearty amateurs of open-air sports as the Meos, and if the missionary had more of this world’s goods than they – well, that was a sure sign that his ai (or spirit), was stronger, and it would be a good thing to imitate him. Before the Meos could trouble themselves with renunciatory religions they would have to create a comfortable and abundant civilisation for themselves. There was no chance of becoming sated with prosperity at the top of their mountains.
The missionary had made one trip to the Meos and was well pleased with his reception. The Meos, he said, were delightful children. Since tribes at this cultural level are hospitable to the last degree and much given to humouring strangers’ whims, the whole village seemed to have foregathered and listened most attentively while he preached. It seemed to me that if the missionary had preached in Meo it was rather an achievement and I asked him whether, in fact, he had done this, or had contented himself with Laotian, which most Meos understand. ‘I did neither,’ he said. ‘I preached in English, and from the way my words were received I feel that we may have started something up there.’
It may be doubted that in thus boldly treating the language barrier as non-existent the evangelist had succeeded in communicating anything of the Christian point of view to his Meo audience. But this performance was, in fact, no more than the reductio ad absurdum of a situation which had arisen even with the first Jesuit missionaries. The separating gulf of language, of thought and of tradition, was too wide and deep. Father Buzome, for example, the first missionary to be sent to Indo-China by the Society of Jesus at Macao, was, if possible, even less effective. The Father preached with the aid of phrases prepared in advance for him by ships’ interpreters, and as a result carried out a number of baptisms. It was only by the accident of watching a farcical theatrical performance in which he saw himself represented, that he found out to his sorrow that his converts had no idea, even, of what the term Christian meant. One of the players was dressed to represent the Father, but was provided with a great artificial stomach. He had a boy as his assistant. The turn consisted in asking the boy ‘whether he would go into the Belly of the Portuguese?’ The boy then replied that he would, and the player stuffed him into the artificial stomach; repeating this ridiculous procedure many times, to the great diversion of the onlookers.
To his horror Father Buzome realised that the invitation to enter the belly of the Portuguese was precisely the phrase he had been accustomed to use when asking potential converts if they were willing to accept Christianity. Thus, by his linguistic industry, the Father had done no more than bring his religion into secret ridicule; while the Meos, at least, are not likely to have felt anything other than slight bewilderment at the evangelist’s quite unintelligible discourse.
Laos, they said at Saigon, was happily free from those disorders that made travel so chancy in the rest of Indo-China. The only difficulty was getting to Laos. Once you got there all was well, and there was nothing to stop you going about the country as much as you liked.
This account proved to be cruelly fictitious. You left Vientiane in the same way as you came – by plane. Either that, or you waited an indefinite time for the military convoy which provisioned Xien-Khouang in the north and the posts between – islands in perilous seas. The only way to get to Luang Prabang, the second of the ancient capitals of the country, which was about three hundred miles away up the Mekong – or about two hundred and fifty miles across country – was by one of the occasional motor pirogues. It now remained to find out what were the possibilities of making the trip in this way.
Providing myself with a Chinese interpreter – the pirogues being, of course, Chinese owned – I went down to the river. By walking a mile or two along the thirty-feet-deep bank you came to a place where the main stream floundered over from the Siamese side, so that a few barely connected stagnant puddles lay directly beneath. In one of these the pirogue lay, cracking in the sun and seemingly abandoned. It was an ugly, shapeless craft; a small junk, with its deck-space entirely covered over with a kind of hutment, so that travellers were confined to a stinking semi-darkness for the duration of their journey. It was arranged so that air and light could be kept out by the lowering of rush-matting screens over the few apertures in the sides.
A few corpse-like figures lay strewn about the foreshore and the interpreter, raising the rags that covered one face, awoke its owner. An absurd conversation now took place, complicated by the interpreter’s refusal to use any medium but pidgin-French.
N. L. Is that the owner of the boat?
N. L. Tell him I want to go to Luang Prabang.
INTERPRETER (to boatman). Him content go Luang Prabang.
BOATMAN (in French). Yes.
INTERPRETER. Him say yes.
N. L. Ask him when he expects to start.
INTERPRETER. Yes, possible you go. Him say.
N. L. I know, but when?
INTERPRETER. When? Ha! Today, tomorrow. Maybe you content to go. All right.
N. L. Do you mind asking him?
INTERPRETER (determined not to lose face by speaking a word of Chi¬nese, puts this into a long incomprehensible rigmarole of pidgin. BOATMAN replies similarly.)
INTERPRETER. Him say engine no good. Sick. Soon he cure. N. L. When?
INTERPRETER. Today, tomorrow, maybe. You content go – you go.
N. L. (converted to pidgin). How long trip take? BOATMAN (in French). Ten nights. INTERPRETER. Fifteen nights. N. L. Why you say fifteen? Him no know?
INTERPRETER. Ten nights runnings maybe. Stoppings too. (Another Chinese arrives and does his best to spread confusion. He describes himself as a Hong Kong Englishman.) H. E. (in English). This boat good. First top-rate class. You come back tomorrow, after yesterday gone. How? N. L. Why come back tomorrow?
INTERPRETER (suddenly falling into line with the Hong Kong Englishman, and pointing to the boatman). Him no say go. Him brother say. N. L. Him brother where?
INTERPRETER and HONG KONG ENGLISHMAN. Him brother gone.
N. L. When him come?
BOATMAN. Today, tomorrow, approximately.