My travels around the world have allowed me to experience a different perspective on life. I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with many people from around the world who come from many different places. I have listened to many stories of survival, triumph, heartache, celebration, love and success that have brought many lessons to my heart and life. There are so many people and stories that have stayed within my soul for me to recall and draw upon when I need a simple reminder of how beautiful, bittersweet and magical this thing called life is.
The resilience of the human spirit became so apparent to me on my travels through Asia. I have never met a more inspirational race of people. How often we complain here in the West of such trivial matters and how ‘bad’ we have it? I am completely guilty of this and writing this post today has humbled me and reminded me just how lucky I am. Life for most Asians, despite their ‘apparent’ lack of wealth is simple, humorous and carefree. It does not matter what hand they are dealt they pick themselves up, they forgive, get over it and make the most of what they have now so that they can improve their future. I miss the profound lessons these people taught me daily.
Craig and I traveled through Laos in Oct 2006. We followed the normal backpacking route but part way in decided to veer off track to have our own experience at Muong Ngoi, a small Laotian riverside village. It was quite a strenuous journey getting there on a hair raising bus ride followed by a small river boat - more like a canoe with a motor placed on it. Thankfully we stuck the journey through to our destination.
We arrived at the village and found several guesthouses at the dock but we decided to trek down to the end of the dirt road to give some business to the guesthouse at the end who would often miss out on the majority of the small number of tourists who filtered in.
We were greeted by the owner of the guesthouse, Nuang Jun, who was gushing with excitement that we had come to stay. Her English was very limited but she immediately made us feel welcome. We could feel how much it meant to her that some farangs (foreigners) had come to stay and she really wanted to do everything in her power to make sure we were comfortable and had a good time. She began to feel embarrassed that she could not offer us more comfort than we would have received elsewhere. She had no electricity and little food to offer us and our accommodation was just a very basic wooden hut with an outside toilet and only scoops of cold water to dunk yourself with to have a shower.
For us this was not a problem, we’d stayed in much worse and for us we travelled for the experiences of the land and the people; not where we put our head at night. Anyway we loved the simplicity and peacefulness of it all. All we noticed was the amazing view we had of the picturesque, jungled mountains by the river and the warmth and happiness that radiated out from this kind lady.
Throughout the week we were to spend some time getting to know the family. Their 22 year old son, Gai, spoke perfect English and he became our guide and friend. He took us on treks through the jungle to visit nearby traditional hillside villages, where he taught us much about the history of the area and the customs of the people. He also took us fishing, traditional Laotian style. I spent the day in total amazement at how skillful he was and how easy he made it seem. I could not even cast the net out in the water let alone catch fish.
I loved spending time with Gai. Each minute was a reminder to me of how grateful I should be of all I have and not only that but a reminder of just what the human spirit is capable of doing and being. He was so determined to make his life and that of his family a success. He was really playing life full out and making the most of his not so fortunate circumstances.
Gai had only one arm. Even though I could see this whenever I looked at him, I always forgot as he could accomplish so much. He could do everything I could do yet better. He operated with total confidence, grace and reverence. Gai was building a bar on the island. It was his dream and he spent every spare minute he had bringing his dream together. He built everything himself. He sawed, and carved and hammered together every piece of wood.
He went away for months at a time to study in Luang Prabang, the city, and when he was home he would work hard to provide a good life for his mother. He was a good, loving and kind son. Every spare moment he had when he was not doing this, he would be working on his bar. The bar he was building was to provide foreigners with a place to socialize, drink and hang out. He envisioned his little village prospering with the increase in foreign visitors to the place and he wanted to make it one they would remember and return to.
He designed a beautiful, tranquil garden and his central focal piece of the bar was his prized possession- the big shell of an American missile, which stood proudly at the entrance to the bar. On the shell was the name of his bar. Our family lived in the mountainous regions of Laos; a place that was heavily bombarded during the Vietnam War. We learned about all of this on one of our last days there in the village. We sat down with the family to have a delicious yet simple meal by candlelight and by the light of the thousands of stars that lit up the dark sky.
The mother, in her broken English, began to tell us her story. She was only a young girl , 8 years of age, when the Vietnam War started. The village lived in constant fear of the continual planes that flew over head, dropping their bombs of hatred upon a land of people they did not know; people who were oblivious to the world beyond their rice fields and fishing nets; people who knew nothing of the reasons for the war and who only wanted to live in harmony with the land and with each other.
To escape the devastation and fear, the whole village moved to live inside the caves of the nearby limestone mountains. For 10 years they lived in that dark, damp, cool cave; daring to venture out only at night time under the cover of darkness to tend to the fields so they could eat and survive. They had no light and little food. Many of their fellow villages died when they emerged from the caves at certain times of the day to satisfy their most basic needs.
For 10 years they lived in that cave together. The mother of our family met and married her husband in that cave. She entered it aged 8, and came out when she was 18, married and pregnant with her first child. Take a moment to stop now and think of your last 10 years. Think about all you have done, everything you have experienced. It's a lot right? Now think about that period of time; it's a long time right? So just imagine for that length of time you lived in the dark, depths of a cave, and that was all you experienced; terrified that if you stepped out for just a glimpse of sunshine and food to eat, you could be blown to smithereens.
I'll never forget the silent stillness I felt that night as I listened to her story. Words could never describe how it moved me, yet at the same time removed all thoughts from my mind. I felt such a deep love and respect for the courage, strength and power this lady possessed. I felt so small and undeserving in her presence. I felt that as a Westerner, even though in her eyes I had so much, in essence I had so little.
The story did not end there. She then went on to tell us about her son Gai and what we already suspected to be the truth. When he was eleven, he was out playing in the mountains, nearby the village, when he picked up a shiny piece of metal to examine it out of curiosity, and it exploded in his hands.
He spent 2 months in the hospital recovering. His mother was so grateful that he was alive and she did not lose her precious baby to that war that had already taken so much from her. He lost his arm, and took a lot of shrapnel in the belly and eye and bares these horrific scars with no shame or anger.
I did not sleep much that night. In the stillness of the night my mind played over and over again their story. I pictured it in my mind and tried to imagine what life was once like for them living in a cave not knowing if each day was to be their last. I couldn't imagine how someone could experience such tragedy yet be so forgiving, so grateful, so peaceful, so warm and loving and eager to make these foreigners have a memorable stay in their simple home. We essentially were their enemy but to them it did not matter. How could they want us around, let alone want to please us? How could they be so forgiving? My small mind could not comprehend the magnanimity of their character. I could only learn from it and hope that I could only ever possess a small amount of the depth of their love and forgiveness.
As I finally drifted off to sleep I saw Gai proudly showing off his prized possession- his 6 foot bomb casing that stood in the front of his bar as a testament to his human spirit. It would always serve as a reminder to him of what he was capable of. That no bomb could ever stand in his way or change his destiny. He was bigger and more powerful than any bomb- it could take away his arm, but it wouldn't take away his sense of purpose, his courage, his ability to dream and achieve, his sense of forgiveness, and the peace he felt in his heart.