The Slow Boat: a series of events
We crossed the border into Laos just over a week ago and arrived in a small town called Houy Xai, where we boarded the 2 day slow boat along the Mekong River to one of Laos' larger cities named Luang Prabang. Although it sounds like hell, the slow boat was one of my favourite experiences so far. It's an opportunity to meet people and relax in the sun with a few drinks for 2 days straight whilst some of Asia's most incredible scenery passes you by. However, our second afternoon on the boat brought turmoil as we became spectators to a series of events I will never forget. The boat stops at random points along the river to pick up locals from rural villages, as we pulled into one of these stops two men were carrying a seriously ill woman quickly down to the boat. They hoisted her and one of the men (I assume either her brother or husband) onto the boat where she collapsed onto the floor in between the two rows of seats. For the first few minutes nobody really knew what to do, the man didn't seem to want help from anyone as he laid her head on his lap and attempted feeding her bananas. The guys steering the boat tried speaking to him, however he seemed to speak a totally different dialect to them. Suddenly the group nearest to the couple snapped into action. One guy handed him a pen and paper and signaled for him to draw the problem, whilst another went down the boat of 100 passengers shouting for doctors and anyone who could speak Laos and English. Two women came forward as doctors and amazingly one man could speak a small amount of Laos. Between everyone involved they worked out that the woman had eaten rat poison, the two doctors agreed that it had already spread throughout most of her body and she needed medical attention as soon as possible. The man who could speak Laos did an incredible job of translating the situation to the men driving the boat. However, they failed to see the emergency and insisted on continuing to stop the boat at random points, which would of course lengthen the amount of time it would take to get to the nearest hospital. They explained the only way they could help was to contact a speed boat but it would cost $50. A whip round with a bike helmet and we collected well over the $50 for the couple, hoping that the extra money would help with the hospital fees.
Whilst all 100 passengers waited in angst for that boat to arrive, we watched as this man desperately tried to keep this woman alive. I can't describe to you the look on his face as he frantically squeezed her shoulders, stroked her hair and pulled her eyelids open over and over again. Perhaps you can imagine.
It was a team effort from the group at the front of the boat to lift her safely onto the speed boat; as it pulled away we realised we would never know her fate.
Dod and I were sat slightly away from where this was happening, however right next to us a sub-story played out that I felt was also important to write about. The woman sat next to me was taking pictures throughout the entire scenario. Several people around her were extremely uncomfortable with this and continually asked her to stop. The woman who was from China pleaded with them shouting "please, the world needs to know so we can help the people of Laos". She slumped down next to me and asked why they were so angry at her for taking photographs, I explained that there were two sides to the argument. On one hand, the woman was in a very serious critical condition and the man was in a highly emotional state and so it could be seen as disrespectful and an encroach on their privacy to photograph those moments. However, from a journalistic point of view a photograph could also be extremely powerful in portraying the reality of poverty in Laos. This man had waited from the previous evening until 2.30pm that day for a boat that would take over 3 hours to get to Luang Prabang because that was all he and the people of is village could afford. There are so many ways an event like this can open people eyes, and as the old saying goes "a picture speaks a thousand words". The woman was beside herself, asking me question after question, "why is Laos so poor?" "Why do they have no signal to call for help?" "Why is there no doctor in their village to help?" She said, "Why is Laos so poor if it is next to China? China is a big rich country that can help poor countries like Laos". She told me she writes a news blog, and that this story would be vital for the people of China to see what is really happening right next to them.
There are so many ways all this can be interpreted, myself and Dod have had many conversations about what happened that day and the questions that arose. No doubt a series of events that will stay with us for a long time to come.