Monday, April 29, 2013

Death in Laos

I wanted to write about my kayaking trip first, but I also want to write about something that happened beforehand.

Leaving Nong Khiaw, my original plan was to take another slow boat farther south. I headed down to the dock, but there were only five other people who wanted to go, two Laotians and an American family, which wasn't enough - boats only depart when they have a big enough group.

I waited around with the others for a couple hours. One of the Americans, a guy from Minnesota, noticed people gathering down by the boats. A massive crowd made its way up the stairs from the dock. A dozen men were carrying the limp body of a young, thin Laotian man.

My first thought was, "oh maybe he's really drunk." I think I thought this because it was the least sinister explanation for a man to be incapacitated. But no one was smiling and it wasn't even noon yet. Sick then? I said a little prayer that he would get better soon as all the men let him down onto the bed of a truck converted for passengers, then piled in on the benches on either side.

The American guy was more inquisitive. He asked the boat ticket seller and he said the man was dead. An electrical accident with the engine. My stomach dropped.

"Was he a worker?" was my first question. This man was coming off the same kind of boat I was supposed to board. Yes, he was a worker. He'd been working on the engine when it happened, the American guy told me. Even still, I felt afraid. I don't want to die in Laos, I thought to myself. There are people I haven't spent enough time with yet.

A group of European girls, who'd planned on taking a boat north, left the dock and went to the bus station instead. And actually, all the boat men left on the truck, so there were no boats leaving Nong Khiaw that day. I headed back to the guesthouses.

Later I learned from a villager that when the man was working on the engine he had an old cord coiled around his neck and it electrocuted him. I didn't do much for the rest of the day. Everything seemed strange and trivial. I had a delicious chicken salad with mint and lemongrass for lunch, the waiter was warm and friendly, I got a cheap oil massage, I Googled "death in Laos" and "electrocution, Laos" trying to make sense, searching for context... I felt out of sorts but also acutely appreciative to be alive when someone else was not.

There wasn't any reason to avoid the slow boats. It was a bizarre accident and accidents happen all the time wherever there is water. Still, I was happy not to get back in one when the opportunity came up that an outdoor company was looking for people to join a kayaking trip. And although ultimately this incident had very little to do with me, I guess I can say, now that my trip is almost over, this will probably have been the scariest and saddest moment of my journey.

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