Upon arrival, I along with a handful of travellers were greeted with what felt like the absence of the sun’s ozone layer, because the UV rays were so powerful that it hurt my exposed skin. That day, I felt for those that didn’t have a base of melanin in them like I did.
That’s the first thing I remember when crossing the Laos-Cambodian border to get to my final destination of Don Det, an island in the middle of the Mekong River in Laos, made up of tiny villages.
The village where I stayed reminded me so much of my mom’s village in Punjab–no internet, no electricity and no western sewage system. You were never more than three feet away from wild chickens, bunnies, kids, geckos, stray dogs and so many species of bugs. Not only were locals able to have an intimate relationship with nature here, but nature was able to interact with itself without any concrete distractions.
Keen to explore the village, my friend, Sarika and I started on a sweaty descent through the rice fields and dirt roads. Back then, exploring had to be done when the sun was out, once the sun set, there was a small window of twilight before night time hit and everything was pitch black. Artificial light was non-existent.
I didn’t intend to fall into a natural whirlpool that day, I just wanted to dip my feet into the crystal, blue water in hopes that it would cool down the rest of my burning body. The swirl of water was so small, so innocent, so inviting. Looking back, it’s better described as a mini vortex, just big enough to swallow my 100-pound body with ease. It felt nice, until the alarm went off in my head and I saw Sarika reach out her arm, as far as her body allowed, gripping a branch, hoping that I would latch on. I’d like to think it was my survival-mode, super strength that pushed me out, but let’s be honest, the force of the vortex had died down.
Along with being soaked head to toe, so was my Nikon. Walking back to the guest house, I left my wet mark on the dirt road with every sad step I took. I was sobbing because a year’s worth of previous travel memories stored on that SD card were now all gone.
The owner of my guest house, (who could have passed for being in his late forties, fifties, or even sixties––his eyes showed he’d seen thing) saw my tears. I couldn’t explain to him what had just happened with words because we didn’t speak the same language. However, we were able to communicate through show-and-tell. I showed him my dampened camera and he took it with him. I said nothing. I saw this man gently wrap cotton around a slender, tapered piece of wood he smoothed out in front of me. He carefully nudged the DIY Q-Tip into the crevices of my camera, soaking up the access water. He then skillfully took apart the camera, with handmade tools, laying its parts out on a sheet to dry in the shade. Once dried, he put everything back in its place and my camera worked flawlessly. This man was the Laotian Macgyver.
He wanted nothing from me in return, not even my money. I was so grateful, I hope he knew how much. We sat together silently, on uncomfortable, flat, wooden chairs. A mysteriously-aged Laotian villager and a young, East-Indian Canadian, looking at the countryside panorama laid out in front of us, as the sky turned from magenta to crimson to gold. I’d like to believe we had some telepathic connection in that moment. We knew this secret oasis wouldn’t stay a secret for too much longer. This was 15 years old ago.
Today, Don Det has become a magnet for thirsty backpackers chasing cannabis and coitus, partying until they zone out. This island has lost its innocence. This is an example of how things can go terribly wrong. The trade-off for global tourism cannot be the loss of preserving both nature and the soul of the Laotian villagers. I can only hope that the next time I visit my mom’s village in Punjab, nature will still outnumber locals, as it once did in Don Det. And that I meet an Indian Macgyver, who will teach me how to put together a first aid kit, made of Indian herbs and spices and a leather pouch to put it all in––here’s to hoping.