Category Archives: Writing

Yangpu Park

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a park I used to walk in daily.

Yangpu District (杨浦区), a concrete suburbia balanced on silt in Shanghai, sustains a vast swathe of people. It is a large urban area by
any standard, clocking in at sixty square kilometres, and as a result of a population density over six times higher than the Australian city of Melbourne, it has a population in the territory of millions.

In 2010 this inner-fringe corner of Shanghai had 1.24 million residents to be exact, all spread throughout hundreds of apartment buildings built up along the west bank of the Huang Pu river, four kilometres north of the famous Bund heritage area of Shanghai.

The name Yangpu means poplar bank, giving rise to a very different time in China’s history, evoking images of clean rivers, blue skies, and branches rustling in the wind, whispering serenity. The average visitor to urban Yangpu would be hard-pressed to feel the name justified, however, as very few poplars are in sight and the riverbank is dominated by industry.

What Yangpu lacked in serenity it makes up for in factories, firmly entrenched in the eastern and southern quarters, heaving rocks and spewing waste about the place; production, production, production, fueling the latest addition to the suburb – the Shanghai shopping malls; gleeful, shining-bright kingdoms of consumer chaos.

But when I lived in Yangpu, there was a place where one could go to attempt escape from the relentless rush, from constantly inhaling fumes, from the congested crowds of pedestrians. It was a place that gives a million people the chance to achieve that old elusive serenity, to reflect on poplar trees, golden banks, on what has been and could
be again. Smack bang in the centre of Yangpu district, hemmed in by concrete walls, iron gates and steady traffic, lies the Yangpu Park.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but venture within the arched gateway and you will find yourself in a surprisingly huge, tightly manicured, twenty-two hectare green space. The Shanghai Municipal Government published an English manifesto listing the qualities of the park in the early 2000s:

Originally built in 1957, Yangpu Park has been renovated three times, most recently in 2008, and offers a wonderful interactive experience with abundant wildlife. The Yuhu lake is at the park’s heart and is completed by exquisite pavilions, corridors, bridges and ornamental buildings, among other forms of garden architecture and botanic attractions in different sections. The rock garden and waterfall near the main entrance hold special appeal, the fragrant pond of water lilies and the fish pond by the waterside promenade offer amazing views. The botanic zone boasts a complete and juxtaposed collection of vegetation featuring the four seasons and the fitness centre provides a wonderful, highly integrated functional space for recreation, sports and entertainment.

Although delightfully hyperbolic, as most English government prose in China is, the manifesto is a decent summary of what the park offers Yangpu residents. There are huge lakes, meandering streams, arched bridges, traditional pavilions, open green spaces, a rose garden, an outdoor public gym, a chi ldren’s play area and more. The approach is strikingly artificial, with a strong human influence exhibited by the standard asphalt paths, colour-coded flowerbeds, carefully shaped hedges, and in one corner of the park, a roller-coaster and tennis courts.

At the main entrance is a brilliantly awkward presentation of the park rules in English.

Pursuant to the regulations of Shanghai Municipality Administration of Public Parks, visitors are advised to observe that ethic and moral codes should be duly honoured:

  • Visitors are expected not to urinate or shit, post advertisements or posters, write or carve around in the park, expose one’s top, lie about, wash or air clothes.
  • Scavenging or begging from others is unallowable; climbing artificial hills is objectionable, ball games and kite-flying are impermissible unless in a designated area.
  • Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare or capture birds, crickets, fish or shrimp, or cicada (except for commercial purposes).
  • The visitor to the park should discipline himself instead of making himself a nuisance to others; any group activity in the park shall be subject to the administration of the relevant department of the park; public speech or public meeting of any nature is inexpedient.
  • Activities of feudalistic and superstitious nature and gambling are prohibited; peddling about, practicing medicine or distribution of propaganda sheets is not allowed.

Walking through the park reveals an enormous number of people recharging away from the hostile city, many in blatant disregard of
the above rules (though thankfully rarely the first one). People stroll aimlessly, people stroll with great aim, people sit, people stand. By the rivers and streams sit solitary men, seated on plastic stools with fishing rods in the water. They don’t read, they don’t listen to music and they certainly don’t talk to other people. They simply stare at the water and concentrate on fishing.

I once asked an elderly fisherman if he had caught any fish that day. He slowly moved his head, stared at me for ten seconds like I just didn’t get it and then said no. Conversation over. Representative of solitary fishermen everywhere, perhaps.

Spread throughout the park are groups of people gathered around card tables playing Chinese poker. These are the stragglers, the not-so-serious players, for everyone knows there is only one corner of the park where the real action is at. Tucked away by a pond, and a decent walk from both entrances, is a concrete and cobble-stoned space that teems with enthusiastic gamblers. At any one time there will be upwards of a hundred people playing poker, exchanging their hard-earned yuan among each other. It is not uncommon to see twenty onlookers for a game with four participants as local reputations are solidified and liquefied, relationships are tested, and (some) people achieve their own form of $erenity.

By the banks of the lake stand the saxophonists, the flutists and the brass bands. It is common practice to claim a lake-side space by nailing a music sheet to the trunk of a tree, then unloading your instrument of choice and letting loose with no inhibitions. Music notes of all flavours float across the Yuhu lake, meeting and mixing in the middle to form a mighty confusing medley. The only people who hear the performers from this vantage point are the boaters, usually young families, plying the green water in plastic rentals. They lounge around the centre of the lake in between tackling the narrower canals, where they regularly bump into each other causing merriment for all – unless you fall into the murky green depths. Then you go to the hospital.

People come to the park to fly kites, feed the pigeons, perform tai chi and sing karaoke. Portable karaoke amplifiers can appear at any pavilion or lawn and it doesn’t take long for a crowd of admirers to applaud participants – and then join in with their own takes on the classics. Towards sunset the park brings its sound-scape into its own hands, playing traditional, if slightly repetitive, instrumental songs over a park-wide speaker system. At the same time every night, the park empties itself out to the same eerie tune, set on merciless repeat.

As the residents of Yangpu finish their serene sojourns through the gardens, other creatures begin their own. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Yangpu park is that it is habitat to a burgeoning population of feral cats … and they all come out at night (… mostly). Tabbies, gingers, big fellas, little kitties, all ranges of cats prowl the park after dark, on the hunt for rodents, fish and left-over picnic tucker.

Clearly only a couple of generations away from domesticity yet still entirely freaky, strolling out of the park at dusk with all the other humans gives one the feeling of being part of a defeated army abandoning an outpost. At every turn the cats watch from the shadows, licking their lips, waiting for their chance … perhaps wondering about the taste of a different kind of flesh … God forbid an abandoned toddler estranged from its parents, wandering the paths in twilight … But I digress.

Yangpu park. For a time it was my local. A strange place, but a beautiful one in its own way, and I am still very fond of it, and for what it gave to me. Serenity now.

Big Bertha

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about riding up to a militarised temple.  Its style is in the present tense as it was originally written eight years ago.  I thought it would make a nice change of pace as a stand-alone entry, a Big Bertha blast from the past, without any banal reflections from the other end of my twenties.

I unfold the wet, deteriorating map of Cambodia onto the makeshift plank table and anchor it down with a mug of steaming leaf tea, spilling a little in the process. The map gets a little soggier, but is at least prevented from flapping in the lakeside wind. Athy eyes me quizzically and shakes her head as she blends fruit into juice. Athy is the domineering matron of the Lazy Fish guesthouse, my temporary (and her permanent) home in Phnom Penh; a space of conflicting culture. She is old – at least fifty – and that means she lived through the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation. I want to bring this up but never do.

“You check out? Always you are going!” she cackles, slightly bitterly.
Adam and I had rolled into Phnom Penh the night before, well after midnight, exhausted and  filthy from our jungle ruminations in the Cardamom Mountains. This is the third time we have descended upon the Lazy Fish guesthouse in such a manner, always returning from our methodical explorations of Cambodia’s corners to this fragrant bungalow, nestled on rotting stilts above the filthy Boeng Kak, a foulwater lake being desultorily filled in with sand to make room for the plusher, staler forms of accommodation Chinese developers supposedly prefer.

“Yes, but we’ll be back! You have the best guesthouse in Boeng Kak,” I respond, quite pleased with my rhyming compliment.

Athy grunts and chops a banana. Once my departure has been confirmed she loses interest in me and yells in Khmer at one of her staff. He scampers from a hammock-induced doze across the open veranda. The plank floor flexes and vibrates dangerously. I sip my tea and wonder how much he gets paid. It is peaceful poring over the map, listening to the whooshing of the Chinese sand being pumped under my feet. Deciding on an initial route is important, but as most of the roads in Cambodia are unmapped, improvisation always supersedes preparation.

Today is an exciting day – Adam and I are riding to Prasat Preah Vihear. We have impulsively decided to visit the heavily disputed 11th century mountain temple on the insistence of a bald English man we met in a grease-pot bike shop in Koh Kong.

“There’s nothing there, nothing!” he had exclaimed – not marvellous incentive for sightseeing. But he wasn’t referring to the beauty of the place; rather the very real danger of bullets, mines, conflict. He was answering his fellow Western thrill-seekers with another excuse to tempt fate. We knew Preah Vihear had been the centre of fighting for over six months and visiting would be risky. Located on the Cambodia-Thailand border, both countries lay sovereign claim to the ancient structure and are in a perpetual military stand-off. Thai and Khmer soldiers are being periodically killed in skirmishes; a few Thai in their Kevlar and helmets, a few more Khmer with their silk krama scarves and tattoos. The hostilities have worsened in the past year, but the old man convinces us it’s safe. What can I say? We are receptive.

The trip takes longer than we expect. We spend a night in Sisophon, a dust-swept crossroads, to drink and regenerate our vigour. We visit several temples along the route – wounded but not forgotten, obscurely hidden down tiny paths behind villages, whetting our appetites. They are glorious and awe-inspiring, but a single slithering python doesn’t quite have the same presence as an embattled squadron of the military. We’re after action; the incongruity of modern warfare in ancient places. Preah Vihear is attaining mythical proportions as we joke and hypothesise about what we will find there, clunking along pot-holed roads, dodging chickens, weasels, children.

We arrive at Prasat Preah Vihear on the cusp of sunset. The Dângrêk Mountains gaze at us ominously, a formidable natural border, miniaturising us in an instant. High, high above, a speck of rock is almost visible, defiantly exhibiting over the Cambodian plains.

“Danana! We made it!” I shout to Adam over the whirring 4-stroke, slamming my bike into third gear to mount yet another wood-plank bridge.

He coasts along, nods, face unrecognisable from nine hours of caking dust. We have pushed ourselves today, nearly to the limits of human exhaustion – over 400 kilometres travelling through inhospitable terrain, not a sealed road in sight, with only wildfires, mine fields and Pol Pot’s ashes for company.

My motorbike is running low on fuel, and I have emptied all my Fanta bottles, but I judge there is enough left in the tank to reach the settlement at the base of the mountains. After all, the bike has already led me through four weeks of highway terror, mountain clefts, jungle paths and river crossings. By now I am truly in love with the beast. We understand each other. No mountain is unsurpassable, no minefield unnavigable, no Wat unreachable. Sometimes, when Adam isn’t looking, I hug the bike, being careful not to burn myself in the process.

Adam and I splutter into the market town at the base of the mountains. It resembles other markets in the north-west, but with a definite military presence. Soldiers are lazing, stumbling drunk or drinking, AK47s slung nonchalantly over shoulders, yelling, laughing. As usual, we are the only westerners in sight, and are appropriately gawked at – I feel a little uneasy, like we are a dangerous anomaly, rather than a mere curiosity, but I convince myself the mood is still merry. Adam and I hustle over to an aromatic petrol seller and fill up.

“Preah Vihear? Ki-lo-met?” I fumble in English. The seller smiles and nods.

“Pram pi ki-lo-met!”

Great. Six kilometres is ten minutes. We’ve got a killer temple sunset coming up (the photos will be great) followed by sleep, sweet sleep… I pay the seller and turn to Adam. He is staring upwards towards the dim summit prosaically, murky fragmented reflections in his spectacles. He always was a stoic. Two firm kick-starts, a few competitive revs, and I am chasing the sunset trail, hooting. The soldiers are bemused by the spectacle. What better way to spend your R&R than by goggling at the Other – that’s why I’m here, after all.

After a few minutes the market dwindles, the wooden shacks regress to sugar palms and we eventually arrive at a kind of improvised barracks. A large number of Khmer soldiers are concentrated in the area, squatting in the shade, milling about in bunkers, huts and tents. There are two sandbag dugouts with heavy machine guns installed, pointing up the looming Dângrêk range. Three soldiers are standing in the middle of the road, blocking our entrance to the Holy Grail, guns on their fronts. Adam and I kill our engines and dismount. As we do so, the craziest of the three points at us and yells.

“NO!”

He is sweating profusely – not unusual in Cambodia’s climate – but he appears to be far slimier than his comrades. He has no sign of rank or authority, so I am initially reluctant to accept his decree. Adam is silent, paralysed next to me, confronted by the profuse weaponry. It dawns on me that he has probably never been this close to people with arms before. Joking is one thing.

“Sok-sabay,” I clumsily greet the person of perspiration. He narrows his soaked eyelids, with an accompanying moist sound effect.

“NO!” he yells again. I see smiles on some of the other soldiers’ faces, but my negative friend isn’t playing. The sky gets darker by the second.

“We want to go up Dângrêk, Preah Vihear,” I motion upwards, point to the motorbikes, to the sun. Some soldiers nod, but most have at least one hand on their weapons.

“No, finish, no,” my antagonist asserts. English is obviously not the game, and my Khmer is horrible, so I attempt a new tact, admittedly my last resort in bilingual relations – physical clowning. I point to the machine gun nest and mime shooting.

“Br-br-br-br, Thailand!”

Is there fighting preventing ascension? All the soldiers find my display hilarious – except for the ring-leader.

“No, no Thailand,” he maintains. So maybe there’s no fighting. Why can’t we go up? I try the pity card. I drop to my knees, do the Wai and moan pathetically.

“Please, we’ve been riding all day, we’re exhausted, we look and feel like shit, we just want to see the temple, the sunset …” I peter off. My physical begging raises more cackles – maybe the majority are on my side by now – but I still fail to ingratiate myself with the perspiratory elitist. I roll into the foetal position and swear. Guffaws.

“No,” the boss shakes his head. He then confers with his (much happier, much more reasonable) colleagues in Khmer. I take this as an encouraging sign and stand up to receive their deliberations in a more dignified manner.

He turns to me and holds up seven fingers. I mime sleeping. He nods. 7AM! He grins. He grins! Our sunset dream is defeated, but I don’t care – tomorrow’s sunrise beckons, and after this awry encounter it doesn’t seem too punishing to eat, curl up and drift off, dreaming of ancient civilizations, AK47s and petrol in Fanta bottles.

Riding up the mountain in the early mist is surreal. Light pierces the fog and illuminates the odd lonely, loaded machine gun nest bordering the winding mountain road, their turrets pointing over forested valleys into Thailand. We see rocket launchers idling against trees, not a soldier in sight. Adam could crack at any second and blow me up in an instant. He doesn’t. This is what friendship is about. Occasionally we pass groups of soldiers doing exercises, but they are few and far between.

Arriving at the summit and glimpsing Prasat Preah Vihear is a defining moment. The human joy of gaining altitude is matched by our feelings of a deserved reward; and as we explore, by the rough, Spartan enormity of the temple itself. The military are present, along the temple causeways and up to the edge of the cliffs, smoking, listening to the radio and gazing out at the punishing Cambodian plains. Some of them draw water from a millennia-old baray (reservoir), Khmer doing what Khmer have done, a thousand years of evolution and divergence deteriorating into the depths. Splash.

The temple is spectacular: chiselled stone, lush vegetation, surreal proliferations of bullet holes, and a defiant, nation-building statement on a giant twenty-metre placard, drawn tight over a section of the temple towards Thailand and the rest of the world.

“PROUD TO BE KHMER,” it says, in capital bold red English type. I would be proud too.

Yet there is something so sad here. Like nearly all of Cambodia, I just don’t know how to take it.

To Exchange At Lightning Speed

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about appearing in a Chinese television show.

My (then) girlfriend and I walked through the shiny, tube-like mall suspended in the sky beneath Hongkou Football Stadium train station. Above or below, connected or adjacent, shopping malls accompanied most train stations in Shanghai, 2010 – and as upwards of seven million people used the train system every day, it’s no wonder. That’s some serious foot traffic and it has only increased since then.

These mini-malls usually sold things commuters could pick up cheaply and carry with them across town, items like trinkets, umbrellas, and electronics. They also invariably hosted at least one convenience store and usually a tea stall or two. We stopped at one of these to order an Oreo milkshake. Not exactly the Chinese tea cultural experience of old, but it’s decadent, affordable, and perfect for sharing.

After a small wait two of our friends arrived: Rui, a Korean-Chinese from Manchuria and Jochen, a Swiss-German from southern Germany. They were both students at Fudan University, where my girlfriend was also studying. We were going to a local pool parlor to rack up, shoot some balls and wait for the cameras: this morning we were going to be on Chinese TV.

I had only been on broadcast TV a few times before and was gearing up for another brush with fame. This could be it! Will the producers be there? Will they see something special in me?

Could I be … the Neon Demon?

“The show is called, well, it means something like lightning exchange,” Rui said as he blazed the trail to the pool hall in font of us, intently navigating on his smart-phone.

“I guess we won’t be on for very long then,” I quipped. Oh, sweet memorable dialogue.

“I don’t know,” responded Rui absently. Shot down.

We’re all very curious about the day’s adventures, and as Rui is the only one of us who has lived in Shanghai for longer than two months, he’s the man with the most information.

“It is like reality TV,” says Rui, “they give money to charity. It is very famous in China”.

After ten minutes of hustling along we strolled into the pool parlor. It was quite a fancy affair, a mixture of bright lights, glittering decorations, plush carpet and faux-gold trimmings, populated by legions of teenagers drinking sodas and shooting pockets to Chinese pop music. This was a far call from the pool venues I frequent in Australia, especially the dingy, chiaroscuro, soft Jazz digs of my favourite venue in Melbourne, the Red Triangle of Fitzroy.

A woman was waiting at the table closest to the entrance. When she spotted us enter she beckoned us over. Young and unashamedly hip, wearing a slightly-tilted black beret, a thin layer of make-up and outrageously cute shoes, she was also carrying, oddly, a Harley Davidson motorcycle helmet. She entered into a passionate discussion with Rui in Mandarin that culminated in the woman spontaneously throwing the Harley Davidson helmet at Rui and running out of the hall. Whoa.

It was bizarre behaviour and, being ever-vigilant, I quickly scanned the crowds for TV cameras. Maybe we had already stumbled into some kind of candid camera scenario and would soon be surrounded by fake Chinese police claiming we had stolen the helmet? My imagination ran wild as I spotted cameras everywhere – in that lady’s handbag, in that vending machine, over there on that dude’s giant hat. But nothing happened. We were not on TV just yet.

Rui sat down with the helmet and stared at the billiards tables gloomily.

“You can play, it has all been paid for,” he motioned to the closest table.

“What did that girl say?” one of us asked, uttering what we were all wondering. Although we were all studying Mandarin, we weren’t very good at this stage.

“We should play pool, and soon the TV crew will come with Annie Yi. Jochen gives them the helmet, but not quickly. They will swap it with you for something else. You have to say it is worth 6000 yuan,” Rui stated glumly, “actually I’m disappointed. I thought this TV show was real.” 

There was a pause as we digested this information. Fake reality TV. Of course. For me, it was even better. Now we had forewarning.

I racked up the balls and began shooting, hoping to get my eye in. If I was going to be filmed playing pool on Chinese TV, I might as well be filmed playing it well. The situation was still a little bit confusing and we deliberated on just how hesitant Jochen should be to let this strange Annie Yi take the new helmet away from him.

My girlfriend suggested that Jochen should ask for a kiss in return, to great agreement from myself. We played pool and Rui continued to brood about his disappointment that reality TV is actually highly orchestrated. Five minutes later we were bombarded by people, by light and by cameras. It was over in fifteen minutes.

The next day, a summary appeared on the TV show’s website. Here is the accompanying wonderful translation:

The physical process of a foreigner’s tragic kiss: How is Annie to deal with this?

Annie met in the billiard hall four of Germany’s foreign friends, who promised them that if Annie could meet their request, they will exchange her several thousand dollars worth of genuine Harley-Davidson motorcycle helmet! However, the requirement is to kiss the German’s lips! Annie, immediately surprised, said there is to be a snooker tournament. If Annie and co-host win, then the German must kiss co-host; if he loses, he can kiss Annie’s lips!

Oh dear! Good heavens! It continues:

Mended to Annie’s very poor playing, Annie “die a tragic death,” but the magic scene appeared by virtue of co-host’s “superb” game, they win the game, and the kiss chase scene played as a German friend laughed and turned one around.

Two weeks later Jochen, my girlfriend and I bought some donuts, vodka and fruit and settled down in Jochen’s spacious terrace house to watch the show. By this time we had learned all about Annie Yi, the famous Taiwanese pop star we met, and the concept behind lightning exchange. But the really pressing questions still hadn’t been answered, such as, how will we all look on television? What will the Chinese world say about “Germany’s foreign friends”?

You may form your own opinions … oh to be twenty-four again.

In Karst

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about (maybe) nearly dying inside a cave.

The newest slippery slice of life to bother the blog comes from Laos in 2009, where I was traveling with a good friend I will call Rowan.  We were doing a motorcycle trip from Vientiane up to Vang Vieng, Phongsali, Luang Nam Tha and back to Vientiane via an overnight boat.  All told we took four weeks to do this route.  I have many fun memories from this trip: being offered opium in a tiny riverside village, putting the motorcycle on a canoe to descend from the northern mountains, piercing sunsets, strange rat meats, zombie towns, gorgeous scenery and generous, kind hosts.

It was one of the best holidays of my life.

However, it wasn’t all peaches and cream.  The astute or similarly experienced will note that I just mentioned we spent time in Vang Vieng circa 2009.  This was before the partial government crackdowns; it was quite the party town at that time, with foreigners dying in decent quantities, drugs flowing freely and debauchery dominating the rivers.

Coming from the rest of Laos, Vang Vieng actually felt quite disgusting – the vacuous consumerism, the ubiquitous cultural insensitivity of the tourists there, the strangeness of several dozen restaurants all showing reruns of Friends on repeat and featuring photocopies of the exact same menu.  You were in Laos certainly, but also in a completely bizarre anti-world.  You were nestled by karsts and surrounded by sticky rice, but more often than not in an altered state of consciousness and non-receptive to the normal travel stimuli.

But the tale I want to tell from Vang Vieng could really have happened anywhere in Laos.  It involves that wonderful term “spelunking”.  Laos is famous for its freshwater lagoons, waterfalls and karst caves.  Over the two major visits to the country in my twenties I explored a good proportion of them safely and with relative ease.  But this particular cave in Laos proved to be rather unsafe and rather difficult.

My friend Rowan was also a fan of the outdoors, but was of a slightly weaker constitution than me.  He also has a heart condition.  Nevertheless he was enjoying the outdoors of Laos, including caves and mountains.  One morning we decided to head to a network of caves in a nearby valley which was supposed to feature an underground river.  Not knowing much more, I took us over there on the motorcycle and we met with the local villagers.

This being Vang Vieng, it wasn’t hard to organise an enthusiastic guide to take us into the cave.  He supplied three rubber inner tubes, head lamps and some rope, then led us behind the village to a small, beautiful pool of crystal turquoise water surrounded by bamboo.  A karst dominated one of its edges, with about a foot of clearance giving way to darkness.  We got in and swam the tubes into the cave.  From golden sun and still water to total darkness and a gentle current: we had arrived.

We were In Karst.

Sitting in our tubes butt first, legs hanging, we turned on our lamps and paddled our way through a maze of grey rock and opaque, milky water, following the leader and occasionally pulling ourselves along with the rope.  The increase in the current was gradual but perceptible, the going got tougher and I could feel my pectorals getting a work out.  Rowan went along in front of me.

However, his was a slower pace than the guide’s, and we soon found ourselves entering a large, cavernous space from the side, with a rushing torrent of water pulling its contents into inky blackness.  The light of the villager’s torch was barely visible ahead and the water was churning a ferocious noise, preventing us from calling out.  Mark began pulling himself along the rocky wall and I followed suit.

It became clear we had to cross over to the other side, as there were no more hand holds and the guide’s torch was in that direction.  The water was moving fast, and whenever we looked downstream the torches did nothing to pierce the gloom.  What was down there?  Who knew.  Most likely rocks.  But how far did it go?  Where the hell were we?  Better not to think about it.

Rowan pushed off from the wall, paddling hard, then flailing … and falling, backwards, with the current.

“I CAN’T!” he yelled as he bobbed past me.

His greasy white face looked petrified.  I remember thinking, “this isn’t serious” but also thinking, “this could be really serious”.  I pushed off from the wall and floated towards Rowan, both of us heading downstream.  I managed to hook my feet underneath his inner tube then paddle hard with my arms against the current.  Words cannot explain how hard this effort was.  I have never before, nor since, felt such pain in my chest.  My pecs were about to rip in half.

I screamed again and again into the darkness with pain and exhaustion.  The worst thing was, it was impossible to tell what was really going on down there. Did it even matter if Rowan just sailed down?  Would the current just take him to the exit?  Or would it bash him against rocks, knock him into the water, kill him?  I screamed and paddled, screamed and paddled. After five or ten minutes, but what felt like a lifetime, I managed to move us over to the passage we had paddled through initially.  The current was greatly reduced in there and Rowan could hold onto the rocks. He looked like absolute shit.

After a while longer the guide returned, alarmed.  I explained that Rowan couldn’t make it upstream and we would have to return.  He nodded and led us back out of the cave system.  We were further in than I had thought, and I remember thinking, “that was close”.  Rowan made jokes about me saving his life.  But really, we were both lucky – at that time I was at my physical peak, and probably the fittest I’ve ever been. I was working out every day doing resistance training, even each morning in the Laos villages and guesthouses.  I have vivid memories of one nice old Laos grandmother sitting on my back while I did push ups.  If the same situation happened today, given my current exercise routine of only drinking beer and cycling, I might not have been able to pull us both, or myself, out.

I still think about what lay at the base of that cavern.  A watery tomb?  A nice handy subterranean beach for us to wait for the guide at, sipping guano cocktails?

We sat that evening, exhausted, and watched reruns of Friends like we were supposed to.