Freedom Rider

It started like any other day, waking up in a strange world full of opportunity and discovery with no plans or expectations. What it became, a 2 day expedition; just me, my backpack and a shiny new rented Honda I recently learned to ride, into places seemingly unseen by any foreigner or wanderer.

Past the rice paddies, rivers and waterfalls. Past countless villages inhabited by more than 20 different Ethnic tribes, through the NPA; massive jungles tangled high into the mountains of Northern Laos, following exhilarating hair pin bends that swayed my body in a rhythmic motion over the hills and through the valleys. For hours, with the road at my command I went in and out of paths big and small meeting villagers along the way. At one particular bridge, 2 dozen children in all states of undress leaped and flipped into the river below. They welcomed my presence and laughed uncontrollably at this ‘falang’ (foreigner). Others piled unto bicycles, 3 at a time to make the hard journey home up steep mountains. One lucky boy, left behind by his friends got home much faster after I invited him to ride along with me. Communication barriers created silence between us as he held on behind me, but his joy was not unnoticed.

Enchanted by the most stunning sunset I rode on into the darkness, the sound of my engine my only companion. The smokes of the slash and burn season create the most alluring colours in the sky. A sudden shift in the characters carved into the stone markers along the narrow road and a brightly lit blockade announced my accidental arrival at the Lao/Chinese border – an access point unavailable to all foreigners. The officials quickly pointed my camera back in my bag before any shots could commemorate the occasion, although they were happy to engage in a game of charades with me as their bright curiosity took over. How on earth does a little girl like me, from the complete other side of the world, end up here?

(Click on any picture to enlarge and scroll)

I didn’t have to go much further back into Laos before a few more games of charades helped me locate a bag of Chinese cookies and a bottle of water – this would have to do as my lunch and dinner for the day. People here truly live off the land. Another 2km down the road, a bright light sparked my interest. Electricity! I parked at the end of a small dirt pathway; I could hear the generators working hard and the sound of laughter. I descended through a maze of tarps and Western and tribal style clothing between Thai Lu styled homes, many with no doors or windows. Some of them, no walls at all. To my surprise, about a dozen or so children and teenagers were gathered around a small pool table. A young girl jumped out from the group, eager to greet me: in English! Very outgoing, unless her limited vocabulary failed her, she invited me to her home: a large wooden room with straw roof, the floor inside no different from the ground outside. Eight family members of all ages were gathered inside. A little girl of maybe 3 or 4 obediently offered me a tiny bamboo stool despite everyone else sitting on the cool moist ground. The family studied me silently, although occasional comments prompted explosions of laughter from everyone as I chatted away with my new friend. She is 17 years old and already she has a baby, although she is unable to tell me his age. Time is different here, governed only by the moons and planting seasons. She told me how she goes into town to sell items her family grows, watermelons mostly, and takes every opportunity to learn English from anyone she can, mainly locals who work as trekking guides in larger towns like Luang Nam Tha and occasionally Muang Sign when a traveler does venture out farther. The grandmother maintained a big smile and eyes focused on me before finally informing my young translator that she thought I was very beautiful, “your skin like Lao skin”. My accommodations for the night would be found nearby, a small wooden den overlooking the Mien and Akha tribe villages on the Chinese border. Total darkness and the sounds of a million tiny creatures amplified. Nothing else!

Tonight I sleep in the very heart of the infamous Golden Triangle.

~An Extraordinary Story by Karina Noriega~

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