"The older you get, the wiser you get." Who believes that shit? The older I get, the more I realize how little I know and if that's wisdom, please make me naive again. The only thing age has bestowed upon me is grey hair, a pot belly and lots of regret. Mostly, I concern myself with the first two; the latter just results in a bounty of "what if's?" and "why not me's?" that manifests in a larger belly and more grey hairs. I reached a point in my life where I knew I needed to shake it up a bit. My relationship had plateau’ed and my work had become routine. Life does that to you -- it lulls you into a ritual where real experiences become more difficult to have. Around and around we go, like the covered wagon in the old westerns where only the background moves. I was scared. Doing something rash meant having to live with uncertainty, but the fear of watching the world pass me by was worse. Over a bottle of 1992 Woodward Canyon Cabernet, I came to the conclusion that I could just pack up and leave and, financially, be in just about the same place. That's a harsh reality in itself.
There's a crisp breeze running through the Vang Vieng as I finish up my morning banana, papaya and pineapple shake with just a drop of condensed milk. With my mountain bike and hand painted map, I head up river to explore the back woods of Laos and a few Hmong villages. Tess and Jocelyn had told me about an organic farm that grew elderberries, so I stopped there first. I met the owner and we toured his farm. He was very proud of his accomplishments. Unlike its surroundings of wild primary forest, it was a tidy, well-kept estate, with orchards, gardens and bungalows that house the workers. I wandered out back, following the noise of laughter, and found a shed full of ladies washing, drying and crushing elderberry leaves for tea. For such a monotonous task, they seemed pretty joyful. Back on my bike, I followed a sign to a Durian farm. The trees were fairly young, but were bearing the notorious fruit. From the river bank, I heard kids playing so I clamored down the rocks with the bike on my shoulder to get a closer look. I recognized the swimming hole from passing it the day before. The river was too tempting, so I pared down to my underwear and joined in the fun. As soon as my toes hit the water, the kids took off; perhaps, I was treading on unwelcome turf or maybe they were just giving me a little space. The cool water was refreshing, as the sun was now in full force. Still wet, I carried the bike back up to the road and peddled blissfully back to route 13.
It was a peculiar road, traffic moved like it was a major throughway -- cars and buses whipping by, pulling you into their fleeting vacuum. But, there were also villagers carrying bundles of wood stacked meticulously on their heads or men herding sluggish cows down from the hills. A group of elderly ladies pulled heavy carts full of watermelon with just a rope wrapped around their head. I pass a school where the kids were on recess, but instead of playing, they were carrying pails of water from a nearby well. There weren't many legible signs. I kept looking for the one that said "Authentic hill-tribe village. Cameras welcome". Just as I began to think I had traveled too far, I came upon a long row of watermelon stands.
The farmers sat contently on tables, chomping away with a spew of seeds shooting from their mouths. Not a bad way to spend a hot afternoon, so I joined in. I pull out my map for some help and they pushed it aside, while pointing to a small valley on the other side of the river.
Once off the main road, the path becomes rough. Shifting down, I clutch the grip tightly, my wheels churning over the reddish brown dirt. The fields were covered with watermelons and two ladies worked diligently at watering them by hand. After crossing a steel bridge, I entered the village of Tham Keo -- about 50 huts set against the mountains. I had imagined sitting down in a small cafe and eating some traditional Hmong food, but there's not much in the way of commerce. A sign in English pointed to a cave, so I went the other way.
I found a path along an irrigation ditch where I could let loose a little. I imagined I was in Tour De France, high in some alpine village; a few kids waved from the other side, just reinforcing my hallucination. There is a special freedom associated with speed, an adrenaline rush that is fueled by fear. I lose myself until I come upon a group of naked Hmong boys lying on the hot cement at the edge of the ditch. We used to do that in L.A.: spray the pavement with water and then just lay there in the sizzling sun as the wet cement steamed beneath our skins. I pulled up, thinking the kids might want to hear about my trip down memory lane. They didn't care, but I told them anyway while they played with my digital camera. Recently, someone commented on my propensity for taking pictures of children. She went as far as saying that I may need to seek some professional help -- fuck you! It's my Web site and it's not a desire, it's an affection and the truth is, I just long to be a kid again. To have that careless freedom you only get once. For me, 8 to 12 were the best years of my life. You were old enough to cause trouble and too young to be pre-occupied with girls.
The boys abandoned the camera for a more engaging pursuit -- swimming. I quietly slipped away down the path and out of the village toward a valley to the north. It was so peaceful, not a person in sight and just the sounds of leaves rustling and birds singing. After climbing a small hill, I came upon an alluring valley nestled up against the dark precipitous mountains. It was a picture of serenity; on either side of the path were swathes of seductively green rice paddies with lucid streams of irrigation shooting through. On the side furthest from the mountains, a huge rock sat as if it had just fallen from the sky. I was so overwhelmed, I wanted to get naked and scream in sheer joy. I jumped off the bike and into the irrigation stream to cross to the other side. The view from there was even more spectacular. In the background loomed the sheer, darkened mountains. Sprawling down their base was a luscious forest of teak and bamboo trees, seemingly being consumed by gigantic eucalyptus. Through the forest twisted the Nam Song river and in the foreground, a patchwork of rice paddies. It was a collage of green -- every shade and nuance; the only intruders were a sprinkle of yellowish leaves and a few long thin white trunk trees.
With all this beauty, all I could think about is "where is everybody?" “Doesn't anyone else wanna take a look at paradise, and isn't there some weeding and watering to do?” There was nothing out there, just stillness, interrupted periodically by a slight gust of wind. So, I just stood resting up against a wooden fence, staring at a few butterflies that hadn't been told about the siesta and contemplated why I had come. Most of my life hasn't been too plotted. My parents weren't big on direction and guidance. They felt freedom and exploration were the cornerstones of a healthy life. I grew up happy and lost. I went to college because my best friend got a golf scholarship. My freshman year, I met a girl named Annie on the way to see The Clash and English Beat. She was a major in Rhetoric and Communications, so I became one too. I graduated, she didn't. I fell into cooking while working to pay my way through college. I'm happy cooking. There's never been a day in my career I didn't want to go to work -- not many can say that. But, I'd also be happy designing clothes, playing in a band or directing movies. Why food? It's hot, it's gone in a matter of seconds and the profit margins are nil.
Off in the distance, I see some movement down by the protruding rock. It's a few ladies, shaded by conical bamboo hats. They move leisurely into the field and begin dousing it with water. I wonder what they think about. Are they full of the envy, regret and the material desires that riddle my life? I know most are Buddhist and desire enlightenment and goodness. But, we all know better. Surely some are out there cursing the insects or coveting their neighbor’s southern exposure or maybe secretly wishing their ancestors had migrated further south, making them Thai. I'm of the belief that you put anyone in Saks for a two-hour shopping spree and they'll be grabbin’ Italian linens, fine porcelain and cashmere jimmies; then, most likely start dreaming about the beach house in the Hamptons to put it all in.
I guess maybe I did run away. And while I don't feel like I'm out shopping for a new way of life, I do think I'm able to see mine clearer. The rigor and sameness of the routine isn't so bad; in fact, I miss it. The paraphernalia of our consumer-driven lives is pathological, but so is an obsession with divine truths. Finding meaning in one's life is a daily chore. My job wasn't the problem, only a symptom. Yeah, there's nothin’ like climbing to the top of a rice paddy for a little perspective, and perhaps enlightenment.Posted by runawaychef at May 6, 2004 06:49 AM