We met Toby in the back of a pickup truck during a 4-hour ride to Laos’ southernmost islands.
“Sabai Di!,” Toby said as soon as he saw us: the Laotian hello. “Where you come from? Where you going?” His black shirt was worn and filled with holes. He twisted his short dreadlocks with one hand. His eyes darted around the truck as he spoke.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Toby would be the first in a string of Germans who’d make our trip to Lao far more fascinating. (The story about the next set of Germans will have to wait until the next blog posting).
He hardly stopped chatting during the scorching hot ride through the red dusty desert. He talked to anyone who would listen. He spoke to all the Laotians in the truck, even the ones who couldn’t speak English (or German), and he hardly noticed they spoke different languages.
When I started snacking, Toby asked for a piece of my donut, which he offered to a young Laotian kid sitting nearby. The little boy looked at him shyly, then quickly looked away, burying his face in his mother’s skirt. Toby handed the donut back to me.
Toby had been in Don Det, the island where we were both headed, for six weeks. He earned a good living in Munich working for a retirement home, but he wanted to leave it. He had fallen in love with the simplicity of Don Det and wanted to live there forever.
“It peaceful man!,” he said with a twinge of an accent. “You can make relax, play with children, talk with locals.”
Don Det, a small oval-shaped island clustered in a group of 4,000 Islands just a few kilometers north of Laos’ border with Cambodia, hasn’t yet experienced the trappings of modern life. Electricity, banks, and cars are a thing of the future. Don Det is one of the few places where locals haven’t yet learned to create a “tourist area” that’s segregated from where the villagers live. On this tiny island, all people live side-by-side.
Foreigners live along the Mekong River in straw-roofed guesthouses built from wooden planks, and spend their days swaying in a hammock on the front deck or floating on an inner tube down the Mekong. Locals live less than 10 feet inland, in single-story wooden houses lifted by stilts to avoid flood damage during the rainy season. The families sleep inside the homes at night and hang out underneath the homes during the day. Laos is the country that seems to have perfected the use of hammocks, which are strung underneath every village home. The front yards all bear cactus, geese, pigs, dogs, cats, and red desert dust. Each house has a small vegetable garden elevated into the air on stilts so that the chickens can’t peck at the crops. There has never been a car on this island.
The one and only “road,” a dirt path too narrow for cars, sees only light bicycle and foot traffic. There are no refridgerators. Boatmen arrive in the morning with deliveries of ice for the coolers. The closest ATM is 4 hours north; Toby was going on a day-long ATM run when we met him. Bugs swarm the night skies, flying into your eyes as you trod down the pitch-black path. You can’t even read by the light of your headlamp without inhaling nostrils full of bugs. So you go to sleep after dusk, listening to the barking geckos and a symphony of insect chirps, whirrs and squeaks, and you wake up at dawn when the roosters crow.
It’s easy to see how someone would love Don Det; much tougher to see how someone could spend six weeks there. We wondered, for the first few days, how Toby was entertaining himself on this small island. We didn’t have to wonder long.
On our third or fourth day there, Toby found me laying in a hammock at night, gazing at a clear, bright view of the Big Dipper. “Get up! Get up!,” he shook the hammock. “My friend is having a birthday. We are making a party!”
“Making a party, eh?,” I said. He was furiously shaking the hammock. He was not going to take no for an answer. I found a candle and began locking the door to my bungalow by flickering light. Toby paced impatiently.
“Come hurry!,” he said. “Wha – you don’t need to lock the door, no one here will take your things! Bho Pang Yan – no worries, this is Lao, no worries. Let’s go!”
We started walking down the familiar dirt path, the only road on the island. He called out to every man, woman and child as we passed. “Eh!,” he’d yell, and then he’d say something in Laotian. The men would laugh. He’d yell out another two or three sentences in Laotian, to more bales of laughter. Then he’d spot someone else, another local, and yell out again. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew him. He kept a brisk pace along the path, with me scampering at his heels to keep up.
After this happened several times, his sounds began to take shape in my ears. What first sounded like unintelligible garble began to form as words and sentences. And I started to realize that he was having the exact same conversation with everyone; he was repeating the same Laotian sentences over and over.
“What does supermao mean?,” I asked him, noting the word he said most emphatically.
“It means crazy drunk,” he replied, then kept his burst of speed along the winding pitch-black path.
We reached the “party,” the one and only café on the island that had generator-powered lights. About 8 people were there, drinking wine and smoking. Toby disappeared immediately. I struck up a conversation with an Indian girl, a blue-eyed Gujurati with a great sense of style. From my peripheral vision, I kept scanning for Toby. Something was up; I knew it, I could tell. Why had he been in such a hurry? Why did he disappear so fast? He wasn’t … normal.
I finally spotted him just along the path, deep in conversation with a tattooed Westerner. The guy took something from him, then walked away quickly.
I waited until the next break in conversation, then saddled up to Toby.
“So how are you staying here?” I asked. I didn’t need any pointed questions. He was all too happy to share information.
“You know the red pills?” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. “What pills?”
“You know, the red pills, the new ones,” he said. “People only knowing about them now. Maybe you don’t have in the States yet. Its so cheap in Cambodia! Only 8,000 kip! The pills have been in Cambodia much longer. But no one knows it here, man. So close to the border, 5 kilometers, 10 kilometers to the border. And you can sell it here for 60,000 kip. But don’t let them catch you at the border, man! One pill, one year! It’s bullshit!”
“One pill, one year?” I repeated. It was a stiff penalty, but I knew Lao, like Thailand, has tough drug laws.
“One pill, one year,” he replied. “But such good money, man. I stay in Don Det.”
I did the math. 8,000 kip is $1 US dollar. 60,000 kip is $7.50 US dollars. Toby was sticking his neck on the line for a profit of about 6 bucks. Minus transit fees.
But it made sense, all of a sudden – how Toby knew everyone, and everyone knew him. How he was so fluent at saying the same things in Laotian again and again, conversations that involved getting messed up. And how he kept himself occupied in these sleepy little islands.
I left the islands after 8 days. As far as I know, Toby’s still there. He says he’ll be there for another 5 years, that next time I come back he’ll own a house there.
“But not when they bringing electricity, man,” he says. “When electric come to Don Det, I get out.”