While a group of us were waiting for the rest of the team to muster, a loud squawk came from a bag piled against the wall amid other bags of rice and oranges. We all started and stared. “Did that bag just move?” Kathleen asked. Just then the bag seemed to inflate and a black wing shot out of the opening along with another angry honk. “Oh no, did a duck get caught in that bag?” Michael asked. We all moved toward it hesitantly. Another loud honk sent us all backward. “Should we help it out?” someone asked. Elizabeth, who was setting up the computer stations, witnessed our confusion and told us that the duck was not, in fact stuck, and she, in fact saw the cook put the duck in the bag very much on purpose. We all frowned and issued sounds of sympathy. “Poor duck, from someone. “Well, I guess that’s what you do with ducks,” from someone else. We all laughed at the prospect of setting the villagers’ dinner free.
Michael and I trekked up to “Pig Stye” Cave again with Kathleen, Mick, Stephanie, Pough, Norseng and Mr. Khamput, Deputy Head of the Village, to retrieve one of the stalagmites and collect samples of the Buddha statues they had found. I was feeling optimistic about the harrowing verticality of the hike until I felt the first drop of rain that signaled a downpour turning the path into a mudslide. This might be fun if there weren’t jagged rocks jutting out every few feet. I thought of my couch at home and how I should be on it, wrapped in a blanket watching cable tv eating a burrito. Kathleen said encouragingly, “Hey, how often do get an adventure like this?” “We did this yesterday,” I whined. Michael encouraged me from behind. Quite literally, he continuously head butted me from below to move me along. The mud made it impossible to get any traction. And again, the guide from the village skittered ahead on his trusty flip flops.
We made our damp descent into the mouth of the cave. Kathleen and Mick unpacked a bunch of colorful caving gear. Stephanie, Pough, Norseng and Mr. Khamput were the only intrepid explorers among us who could contort comfortably through the small hole that lead to the “meandering galleries” below.
Michael, Mick, Kathleen and I waited while the four of them found the stalagmite the team pointed out and began hammering at the base. Don’t let anyone tell you speleologists make for boring conversation. I could barely keep up with the vocabulary flying around. Words like tupha and karst. I asked Kathleen what a tupha was and she said it was a kind of “trevertine.” I hope I will get the opportunity to drop this word into conversation at some point.
Stephanie, or at least a portion of her face and headlamp, reappeared in the hole. She said Norseng and Mr. Khamput had stopped to pray before the Buddha figurines before taking them. She showed Kathleen the picture of the stalagmite to make sure it was the correct one.
Michael was joking about setting up a picnic table with wine and cheese while they were down there working away when we heard a heavy rustling in the leaves above the cave. They all said they’d hoped to see tigers and snakes. I would be happy with a monkey sighting, preferably a small gibbon, but I am perfectly happy avoiding encounters with fanged fauna.
The group emerged from the hole carrying bags of Buddhas and three pieces of stalagmite. We packed it up and carted it back down the treacherous mudslide with the instructions that if we should fall, save the sample first. I’m pretty sure this was a joke, but given the amount of effort that went into collecting the sample, I was more concerned about cracking the calcium carbonate block in my backpack than my own head.
We returned to the Conference Center and the cook had prepared a beautiful lunch of fried eggs in a tangy fish sauce, fried water buffalo rind (which are quite good if you eat them next to a field of water buffalo) and the ubiquitous sticky rice in a basket. I have gotten so used to the custom of grabbing up a big sticky chunk of rice with my bare hand and using it as both plate and fork.
Somehow we mustered the energy to hike back up the other side of the mountain to Tham An Mah. We were laughing deliriously at how tired we were. I had to pick my legs up to move them up to the next rock.
The team had managed to map out the extensions of the one by two. No digging yet. But Helen was elated to have found another pot in the opposite end of the trench. Kathleen and Mick wanted to take a look at the stalagmite they wanted to lug down he hill and rig up a rope system to get it off it’s base. The four of us climbed into the cubby hole straddling the ledges on either side of the opening looking down at two separate holes filled with dried leaves and sticks and my imagination filled them with all manner of viper. Kathleen unraveled a hot pink rope ladder. And hoisted herself up on the platform next to the stalagmite. Her eyes widened with whatever quality she witnessed that made it “a great sample!” I love how people like Kathleen can get so excited about something so specific and basic as a limestone deposit.
At the end of her visual scan, she jumped. I think she might have even held on to her stalagmite friend for comfort. “There’s a huge centipede over there.” I couldn’t see it from my vantage point, but I imagined it couldn’t be anywhere near as gruesome as a milipede. Why would a hundred legs be worse than a thousand legs? Mick hopped up on the ledge and craned his neck to get a gander and gasped. He snapped a picture and the camera came back to me with a horrifying image of entomology at its best or worst depending on what side your on. “It’s beautiful,” Kathleen lilted. Not the adjective I would have chosen, especially if it was only a yard away from me on a ledge with a rocky snake pit below. Unphased, she continued strapping and buckling and doing what she knows and loves best. Fortunately all we had to lug back down the mountain this time were soil samples.
By now the team has gathered, cleaned and labeled quite an impressive cache of findings. The electric blue tarp laid out in the clearing is scattered with mounds of bone, flakes, shell, etc. At the end of the day, the tarp flits away somewhere and the team plays a game called Gha-TOH with a woven bamboo ball similar to hacky sack. Last night with the help of the plastic string used for the excavation, they modified the game into a kind of volley ball. Michael was amazed that “all they need is some bamboo and string and they are happy.”
We slept at the camp site last night for the first time. We were actually looking forward to getting away from the urban trappings of Luang Prabang. Imagine that. The ghosts of pinhole lights coming through the woven bamboo walls rippled on the mosquito net. Some of the Lau guys were still singing to Mou’s guitar around the campfire. I could hear the syrupy trebble songs from a distant radio and the murmuring voices from the guys in the adjoining hut. A momentary landscape of sound and light I could never recreate anywhere else.