Into the Meo Country 5

It remains to be said that such drums as have come into the owner¬ship of citizens of Luang Prabang, in sad and symbolical descent from their original high function, now serve as cocktail tables.
It was fitting that at Luang Prabang the impetus of travel should have spent itself. Not even convoys ever came as far as this. Groups of unfortu¬nate men occasionally set off on foot and walked for as long as three weeks through jungle trails to relieve isolated posts. Other arrivals and departures were by a weekly DC3 plying between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It was booked up well ahead.
Down at the riverside the story was much the same as at Vientiane. There were pirogues which supposedly made regular journeys, but no one was prepared to commit himself to positive information about them. One authority went so far as to say that it was out of the question to hope to travel north by pirogue because the river was too low at this time of the year. I had just thanked him when the engine of what looked like a totally abandoned hulk, lying in an oily pool not far away, suddenly burst into wheezy activity. One of the crew of two said that they would be leaving in half an hour. Bound for where? – Vientiane? No… Xieng Khong – for the unnavigable north, of course. All the space had been reserved for a body of ex-pirates who had changed sides and had now, it was said, demanded to be sent back to fight their former allies.
While I was slowly piecing together this jigsaw of information in pidgin-French, the brand-new patriots arrived for embarkation; a most apathetic looking body of men. In their ill-fitting uniforms they were standardised; deprived of individuality by a common factor of misery, an ingrained habit of expressionless stoicism. Silently they filed up the gangplank and filled the dim interior of the pirogue. It was difficult to believe that the fire of conviction burned in any of these breasts, and I felt sorry for the French NCO who was being sent back in charge.
But Monsieur Leveau said that there would also be a pirogue going south one day, and to save me from being victimised by Chinese cat-and- mouse tactics he sent for the owner and asked him when the boat would leave. With gentle satisfaction the Chinese immediately replied that the engine had broken down. Monsieur Leveau had been as ready for this as I had been, and said that he would send a mechanic down to inspect the engine. To this the Chinese replied that the repair was already in hand, and would be done by tomorrow – approximately. (The latter word, with which the Chinese protect their flanks in argument, corresponds to an equivalent in their own language – Ch’a pu to – and is never out of their mouths.) And after that? the Conseiller asked. The Chinese thought and said that he would have to give the boat a trial. This would take another day – approximately. And then? Well, then he would have to see about getting some cargo, which, after all, depended upon other people, and not on him. Shaking his head sadly, Leveau sent him away. There was something indomitable about this clearcut determination to have no truck with Western ideas about time and organisation. Leveau told him to report every day as to the progress that was being made. But each day, the news of a difficulty resolved was accompanied by another protective imponderable, and then the trump card was slyly produced: the reported lowness of the water through the rapids which might make it impossible to go as far as Vientiane. It was quite clear that nothing short of the direct action of a War Lord or a Commissar could have compelled this man to go against his national tradition and commit himself to a definite promise.
And now there were other difficulties including money ones. Through the artificial pegging of the piastre at about two and a half times its real value, Indo-China is very expensive. The further one goes from Saigon the more expensive it becomes, because all supplies have to be brought by lengthy and laborious methods of transport. At Luang Prabang the bad, weak beer which cost about two and fourpence a bottle in Saigon, had reached eight shillings after a fifteen-hundred-mile trip up the Mekong. All other prices were in proportion. I was therefore becoming uncomfortably short of money, and it was an alarming thought that I might be stranded several weeks before the force of circumstance compelled the Chinese pirogue owner to set out for Vientiane. Even when this date was fixed, and supposing that it were quite soon, there were the provisions for the voyage to be thought about. If everything went well it would take five days – or nights, as they say in Indo-China – downstream. But if a breakdown happened it might take two or three times as long. I was warned by Dupont that it would be impossible to buy anything in the Laotian villages: even to the number of eggs laid by the hens, everything was calculated so that no more than the bare essential was produced.
The other difficulty was that of a slow, progressive and hardly perceptible decline in health; a wasting away of the energy, and a seeping paralysis of the will. Comparing each day’s performance with the previous one I could not measure the increase in lethargy. But when I remembered how I had felt and what I had been able to do a month previously; how even at Angkor I had walked mile after mile through the ruins in the rabid sunshine – it was by this that I could gauge the decline. Quite suddenly my strength had gone. I could only walk slowly and welcomed with relief the hour of the siesta. The siesta was slowly eating into the day, and now tended to last all the afternoon. It was as essential as eating and I could never imagine that I should ever be able to discontinue the habit, even in England.

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