Journeys within Journeys.
Two of us on hired motorcycles, up somewhere near Laos’ border with China, with a handwritten note we can’t read. Two of us tootling about on New Year’s Eve, looking for Max’s mom.
Seeing a group of women sunning themselves outside a small shop, I stop the bike and head over, bowing slightly with hands together before my face, in the Lao nop of respectful greeting, and show them the note.
Embarrassment all round.
Oops… None of these women can read. Awkwardness and then giggles and then outright laughter in merriment at our mutual predicament. A teenage girl is called over and, with one eye still on her smartphone, quickly reads the name and address on the piece of paper out loud to the women.
“That way,” they point. “Go that way.”
“That way,” I mimic. Stuck again. How to say “how far” in Lao? Or “how will we know it’s her?”
“This way,” says a grandma with a very small baby in her arms. “Come.”
And grandma begins to walk in the direction they pointed.
“Come,” she says. So Bradley and I follow self-consciously on our motorbikes. Grandma refuses my offer of a ride, so our little procession of old woman, tiny baby and two motorcyclists proceeds at stately pace down the middle of the road, watched from all sides by the mildly curious.
And then it all speeds up. Our mother hen calls out to another group of women who push one of their number forward and, before we know it, we are face-to-face with Max’s mum, a little unsure of what to say. I, in turn, push a giftbox of biscuits forward and she takes it without looking at it. And we say “We are friends of Max,” and she says “Santar” and we say, “Yes, Santar” and somebody else comes over and takes a picture of us together and it’s all increasingly awkward and then a chair is brought and I sit myself down in the sun with these three Yao women who speak little more Lao than I do. Which is not very much.
And then, slowly, we all relax and embrace the random weirdness.
Max, you see, is now a strapping 17-year-old lad we know from Vientiane, where he lives with our friend Jo Pereira. Or he did until he took up a scholarship recently. Now he lives in a hundreds-of-years-old castle in Wales on an international study programme. But the journey from here to there, from Muang Sing to the Vale of Glamorgan, is not the most significant he has taken in his life.
Nearly a decade ago, an 8-year-old Max – or Santar, as he was then – was hit by a truck after being called across the road by his deaf father. He lived but his legs were mangled. And, in a dirt-poor village, that’s not much of a life. He couldn’t go to school or play with other kids or be useful to his family, so he sat in a dark hut, withdrawn from the world and depressed. Until Jo and Cope found him.
Jo was an occupational therapist for an organization that helps victims of ‘unexploded ordinance’ – the remnants of the US-dropped cluster bombs that still lie in wait so long after the war, waiting to more than trip people up, still waiting to destroy their lives.
Santar’s new journey had begun. He was taken to Vientiane for a prosthetic limb and, in the following years, for surgery and treatment to correct his remaining leg. Over the subsequent years, home in Vientiane became Jo’s home, and he began to flourish. He learned English, started excelling at school, and displaying an inspiringly positive outlook. [Read Santar’s story on the Cope website.]
Bradley and I had hoped to hang out with this young man for a day or two in his home village up here in the infamous Golden Triangle, which is why we have the scrap of paper he jotted his mom’s name and address on, but our cycle trip has not gone to schedule, and we’ve arrived a day late. He’s on his way back to Vientiane and we’re sitting here in the sun with his mother and two of his “aunts”.
They’re in the dress that identifies their Yao hilltribe ethnicity, and their fingers never stop moving as they embroider delicate traditional designs on hand-dyed cloth. Not until somebody brings the family photo album out and we all point and exclaim and there’s much storytelling about the brothers and sisters who made it out after the war and the revolution. Made it to the USA.
We sit roadside in the sun and look at family photos from a UNHCR camp in August 1983. And then the page-upon-page of family photo of Yao families on special days in the US, their SUVs parked to the side, dressed in all the trimmings sent to them by those who stayed. Those who got away paying top dollar for traditional outfits sent by those who stitch by the roadside.
And the part that touches me most: the naive, hand-painted backdrops to these photos. Those who’ve ‘made it’ now so far away, yearning for the place they left. For these wide open spaces and the blue mountains that ring them. For the land their spirits still roam.
For Santar’s home.
PS: Video to watch. It was when another friend named Jo – Lidbetter, in this case – posted this old video on Facebook yesterday that the memories of Max’s mum came flooding back, along with my tears. It shows a younger Santar and Jo Pereira, from back in those days. From back before I’d met them. (Please do watch. It tells so much of the important story here.)