The Road to Xien Khouang

THE STRUGGLE with the pirogue men, which I expected would become a daily routine, was suddenly broken off by news of a convoy going to Xien Khouang. And better still there was a spare seat in a car which would leave the convoy after the danger point was passed and carry on to Luang Prabang. This was a jeep belonging to a French official called Dupont, a flamboyant, red-bearded figure I had often seen hur¬tling through the streets of Vientiane. Dupont had been on a mission in Vientiane and was now returning to his home in Luang Prabang.
He arrived at the villa at about three o’clock next morning – a tornado approach, through the foot-deep carpet of dead leaves. Shrouded in protective clothing as the driver of an early Panhard-Levasseur he could be seen through the bare frangipani branches, tooting his horn continu¬ally, and waving his arms with excited exasperation at the thought of things he had forgotten. There was a platform built between the driver’s and passenger’s seats on which a dog which looked like a samoyed perched uneasily. Dupont said it was a race bred only by the Meos. In the back of the jeep a Laotian driver sat buried in luggage. He was asleep, and as we took the corners his head rolled from side to side like a freshly cut-down suicide.
So far I had met French intellectuals, soldiers, politicians, but Dupont was the man of action, although action that seemed often without motivation or relevance. He was a corsair out of his day; an adventurer who was swaggeringly going native and whose ardours Laos would tame and temper. Dupont had married a Laotian wife in Luang Prabang and said that he would never return to France. His children would probably be brought up as Buddhists, and by that time, no doubt, Dupont himself would be paying some sort of lax observance to the rites. In the mean¬while he had reached the point of respecting in a light-hearted way all the superstitions of East and West combined; sometimes perplexed when they were in conflict, as happens, for example, with Friday the 13th; since in Indo-China all odd days are fairly lucky, and Friday is the luckiest day of the week. He carried a Laotian sorcerer’s stick, engraved with signs and symbols enabling him to cast a rapid horoscope, but was only affected by verdicts in support of decisions he had already taken. Dupont was in a great hurry to get back to Luang Prabang, because his wife was pregnant and he was afraid that she would hurt herself on her bicycle, although he had dismantled it and had hidden some essential parts. We were supposed to stay in the convoy until the Xien Khouang embranchment was reached, about a hundred miles from Luang Prabang, but Dupont said that if I had no objection we would clear off on our own at the first possible opportunity. He then made some fatalistic remarks about death and predestination.
At the convoy assembly-point, we found a great show of discipline. Tight-lipped officers were walking up and down examining tyres and checking guns and ammunition. Drivers were assembled and lectured on convoy discipline. A soldier’s Laotian wife, being observed to be preg¬nant, was refused permission to travel. The infantry escort was carried in five or six lorries and as many others were loaded with supplies. A dozen jeeps were placed in the middle of the convoy, which was guarded at each end by an armoured car. Dupont was turned back when he tried to bluff his way to the head of the column behind the leading armoured car, from which position he had hoped to be able to sneak away at an early opportunity.

Although by the time we got under way it was shortly before dawn, all Vientiane was still awake. Grinding our way through the streets we passed a boun in full swing with its temple-dancers still trapesing round their stage, and the magnified sobbings of a crooner not quite drowned in the roar of thirty exhausts. The streets were full of torch-carrying crowds.
No sooner had we left the town than the dust, released from its covering of fallen leaves, rose up in an all-obliterating fog. It was useless to rebel, to attempt evasion, to muffle up the face and cover the mouth with a handkerchief. In the end you gave in. Dust erupted in seemingly solid cones from the wheels of the preceding cars. In an hour we were turned into reluctant millers. Dawn revealed Dupont falsely tranquil beneath a yellow mask. Our Laotian driver slept peacefully and drifts had filled in the hollows of his upturned face. The Meo dog cleared its fur occasionally with a violent muscular spasm, and, sneezing continually, spattered us with its saliva. Dupont comforted it in Laotian, which he said the dog understood, as well as some Chinese.
Beyond the veil which the convoy spread about itself, the forest took shape dimly, or rather, disclosed its leafy anarchy. Stems, trunks and flowers – if there were any – were all contained in a grey carapace of leaves. Once or twice, a silver pheasant, its plumage dulled in the haze, passed over our heads and splashed into the foliage again. Only when we stopped and the ochreous fog slowly settled, could the colour seep back again into the landscape. Somewhere beyond the barricade of trees, the sun had risen and was greeted by the mournful howling of monkeys. Small, dull birds had awakened in every bush and produced a single melancholy note. The soldiers, forming dejected groups, scooped the dust from their ears, rinsed out their mouths with vacuum-flask coffee, and were professionally pessimistic about the outcome of the journey. Dupont came to an understanding with the drivers immediately ahead, and in this way improved his position in the convoy by two places. He had just found a stream in which he was about to throw his dog – the animal was terrified of water – when the officer in charge blew his whistle for the convoy to get under way.

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