TEACHINGS OF THE WATER BUFFALO
A water buffalo gave me the wisdom to see defeat’s gift. With eyes like liquid chocolate he tells me: if he could retreat he would, that turning tail is a sign of courage, not failure. Standing an arm’s length’s from me and my two daughters and blocking a pocked-marked soggy footpath high in the mountains of Laos, the water buffalo stretches his thick black tongue across his broad nose, already wet from mucus and rain, and slathers on another layer of moisture. His eyes say leave, walk away as fast as your gimpy leg is able.
Attempting to pass us, the buffalo slipped, and except for a bent knee, carrying all his weight by the look of how deep it’s sunk into the mud, his massive body balances precariously on the downhill side of a slope too steep for me to walk up. A taut rope looped through a metal ring in the animal’s nose is held by two skinny farmers.
The water buffalo is on his way to slaughter. Me, my two daughters, and our guide, Mr. Wong, hike in the opposite direction, to another tribal mountain village in Phou Den Din National Protected Area, a remote part of Laos sandwiched between China and Vietnam. My daughters and I are game for adventure. We’ve hiked Denali, Machu Picchu, Nicaragua’s volcanoes, the Galapagos, the Pyrenees. We aren’t freaked out by hissing iguanas, coiled snakes or palm-sized cockroaches climbing up under our pants, or flustered roughing it. But this journey demanded more from us than usual.
Hiking would be challenging even during the dry season, with quick elevation gain (no switch-backs here), and on the rare occasion of reaching level ground, walking a narrow path slicing across a hillside: below, machete slashed vegetation ready for a dryland rice crop, above, seemingly impenetrable jungle. But during the monsoons, the mucky conditions turn the journey treacherous. Between finding solid ground below the trail’s muddy veneer and remaining vigilant for hitch-hiking leeches, the trek is wearisome. My left knee aches, the knee I broke in a cycling wipe-out six months ago. As a wildlife biologist, Laos’ enchanting nickname, land of a million elephants, motivated me to travel to this rugged terrain when I should have been couch-bound recuperating.
“Are we there yet?” Ten-year old Ava asked just before the buffalo entered our lives.
Mr. Wong laughed. His cackle a cross between a cat hacking up hair balls and a raven’s scream. While irksome, what bothered me more was his non-stop chatter on one of the three cell-phones he safeguarded in Zip-lock baggies.
“Twenty minute more,” Mr. Wong said.
With an eye-roll, Ava broke into song, her antidote to anxiety, changing words to match life. “I’ve got my ticket for the long way round. Two bottles water for the way.”
Lyda pushed her younger sister’s sing-song aside with a harshness we all felt. “Mr. Wong, you said that three hours ago, when we left the other village.” For emphasis, she squeegeed water from her pony-tailed hair.
"The water buffalo is on his way to slaughter. Me, my two daughters, and our guide, Mr. Wong, hike in the opposite direction"
The deluge had stopped, but looking skyward, the clouds would certainly drench us again. Rain so torrential I hiked with my head down for fear my contacts would wash away. Rain so relentless Lyda wrapped her camera in a poncho and stuffed it deep within her backpack, a backpack labeled ‘water-proof,’ a false claim, at least in Laos.
Mr. Wong’s ‘twenty minute’ really meant ‘why was it important how long the journey is?’ The Laos plasticity of time agitated our Western psyches. We hadn’t had any luck prodding him to answer the time-distance correlation realistically and by inference, the end to pain and suffering.
Beside a lone neon pink orchid blossom we spotted yesterday, the jungle had been monochromatic green. I had expected flamboyant butterflies, serenading birds, slithering snake surprises, elephant poop. Especially elephant poop or at least tracks. I attributed the lack of creatures to fear, for if they showed themselves they would be eaten, as throughout our journey, villagers hunted and gathered everything which flew, jumped, or crawled.
So when the water buffalo and his handlers rounded the bend, we all took notice. They were the first moving things we had seen or heard since leaving Jakeampa, the village where we spent last night.
Head down, the buffalo methodically placed his hooves. With each step, he tested the murky rain-filled divots, holes made from other buffalo hooves pressing into the same spot, seeking traction. Occasionally, firm ground under the gooey surface eluded him and he paused to steady himself.
Lyda hurriedly unbundled her camera.
“She’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes,” Ava sang.
All four of us stepped off the trail and scrambled a foot or two up slope, as the buffalo was huge, his belly taking up the entire trail’s width, and then some.
As the buffalo came broadside, I squelched the urge to touch him. His legs and underbelly were splattered with mud, bleaching his slate colored skin. He turned my way. With his broad black nose, a larger version of my childhood lab’s, and thick long lashes I wish I had, I felt a ping of guilt for eating his brethren two nights ago and vowed not to eat buffalo again for fear of eating him.
“And we’ll all go out to meet her when she comes.”
“She is a he.” Lyda snapped photos.
With the buffalo’s next step, his right front hoof skated away. He slipped over the trail’s lip. Catching himself from falling further he ground his left bent knee into mud.
It is one of those moments when the world takes a breath. Mr. Wong stops fiddling with his cell phone baggies. Lyda fingers lay still on her lens. Ava silences her voice. And, I keep all my weight on my good leg, forgetting to bend my mending one. It is then, I realize the depth of nature’s reticence: no bird calls, no animals crashing through underbrush, no insect hum. Fear fills the void. Fear of humans. Fear the buffalo will tumble downhill, his plummet broken far below by the jungle, his body cut to smithereens.
I wonder how he could have slipped in the first place. He is sturdy, sure-footed, a native. If he can misstep so could we. My knee isn’t strong enough to catch me if I did, nor rescue my girls if they did. Mr. Wong isn’t equipped to take care of us. There is no air-vac, no ambulance Mr. Wong can summon on his cell, like I had when I tumbled from my bike. The nearest hospital is a day and a half hike, one slow-boat ride, and an hour’s trip in a bouncy tuk-tuk away. And if we landed there, what quality of care would we receive?
The buffalo runs his tongue over his nose and the world revolves. I breathe. His handlers pull ropes taunt, shout. Their words trip over one another, sounding like the loquacious songbirds I expected.
“The water buffalo needs space.” Mr. Wong points to a downed tree, further away. “They can be unpredictable.”
As if understanding, the buffalo snorts and grinds his left knee further into the muck, the same knee I broke, which throbs more in sympathy.
I turn. My knee has stiffened from buffalo sympathy, too much action, not enough, or all three, and my limp returns.
“You can do it,” Lyda says, encouraging me to walk the short distance uphill to the fallen tree.
Ava hands me her walking stick. “Go Mom go.”
Up until my accident, I played cheerleader. Now, our roles have reversed and the girls provide spirit. The switch makes me feel old. Much like my surgeon had when he told me my recovery may take a year (I pretended not to register ‘or longer’). Forget that, I had thought. A year (or longer) was for couch potatoes who spent days on Facebook. Admittedly, showing him I am made of sterner stuff played a role in deciding to take on Laos, as important as spotting an elephant.
I’ve withstood worse things than a gimpy gait and a rough trail. Reaching the next village couldn’t be as bad as widowhood at age 31, with toddler-aged Lyda in tow, a nasty subsequent marriage to and divorce from a passive-aggressive alcoholic, or giving birth twice without pain killers, Ava tipping the scale at 12 pounds.
Lyda pats my back as I join her at the log, her hands muddy from picking herself up after slips. “You did it.”
"I felt a ping of guilt for eating his brethren two nights ago and vowed not to eat buffalo again for fear of eating him."
Shoulder to shoulder, we watch the predicament. The water buffalo isn’t going anywhere. His sides heave. His handlers talk, sorting out a plan, it seems, although neither lessens the rope’s tension. After a bit, the buffalo uses his breath to try to accomplish a Herculean task: shifting his weight so his right hoof gains the trail. He rocks forward and back. The men scramble. With all that weight, I’m sure gravity will thrust the buffalo downhill. While he heaves himself up with his exhale, it’s not enough to gain a perch and he settles back where he started.
“At least the buffalo stopped in a leech-free zone.” Ava jabs the ground with her walking stick, a piece of bamboo.
I check my shoes and the ground around Lyda’s and my feet. No creepy-crawlies, the inch-long leeches preferring shadier areas.
Lyda motions to my pack. “Do you have any dry socks? Mine are gross.” She pulls up her running leggings, smeared with dried mud, revealing bloody socks.
I shake my head. “What I washed last night was damp when I packed this morning.”
Leeches abounded along the trail to Jakeampa and the advertised two hour journey morphed to five. Shoes and socks became blood soaked from the buggers wiggling up our soles. Every body part which touched the ground became vulnerable. After resting on a patch of grass to watch women hunt for frogs and cut bamboo shoots, their harvest stashed in woven rattan baskets hanging from their foreheads, Ava plucked a dozen leeches from my back.
Once we reached Jakampa though, we overlooked the blood-suckers. What seemed like the entire village watched us reach the chief’s hilltop hut, men and boys lined-up and stared while we took in the view. Wooden huts clung to steep slopes. Further down, nearly 4,000 feet down, to the trail’s beginning, the Nam Ou snaked between cloud-topped hills. All around us, with one exception, wilderness spread. The one exception was the gigantic dam under construction, a mere dot from this distance. Yet that pin-prick would change the entire landscape as well as these villagers’ lives.
In indigo-dyed tunics, with sleeves and side-panels trimmed in pink, white, and sky-blue, women peeked from doorways, and from behind the cows and pigs they tended. Their elaborate headdresses, with dangling silver beads and antique coins hanging past their waists, seemed as out of place amongst the mud-caked livestock and dirt-floored shanties, as a Mercedes at a county fair’s tractor-pull. Many had swaddled babies tied to their backs.
We chased squealing piglets, but they slipped away with the same determination as the women retreated when Mr. Wong asked if Lyda could take their picture. As the sun set we retreated to Chief Phuonho’s house. Walking through a narrow hallway, the outer wall open just below the eves, we stepped over a row of half-buried Beerloa bottles, planted neck down to prevent rooting pigs from breaking in. The windowless interior was dimly lit by one solar powered bulb. As our eyes adjusted, a fluffy white and black dog streaked past followed by three puff-ball puppies. One squatted and peed on the floor. No one admonished the puppy as the puddle soaked into the packed dirt.
“Give me your wet clothes,” I said, thinking of our own housekeeping.
The girls handed me their packs. Everything was damp. We changed into the least limp clothing. I scrubbed the worst of the rest, using water collected in a rain barrel and ringing blood from our socks.
After voraciously eating bamboo soup, corn soup, juicy stir-fried vegetables harvested from the jungle, rice, divine salty peanuts, after talking with Phuonho about the dam’s progress, the ins and outs of the resettlement plan, and intermittent cell phone service, hence Mr. Wong’s multiple phones, the household settled down. Mamma dog was turned outside and the puppies were shut in the vestibule.
“If you need to pee in the night, go next to the front door,” Mr. Wong said as we crawled under thick quilts.
A full moon rose. The rains returned. One of Phounho’s grandbabies cried, more on than off. A tethered calf mooed in the downpour. I slept fitfully.
Until Ava whispered, “I’ve got to go.”
Trying not to alert every one of our intentions, we wiggled out from under quilts and into wet shoes. My stiff knee created awkward movements and Ava shushed my jerky efforts. We stepped over the upended Beerloa bottles, and once in the vestibule, though we were home free.
But the puppies hadn’t bought into our plan. They yapped and lunged at our ankles. Outside, mama dog howled and the calf bellowed. The commotion surely woke the household, the neighbors, the entire village.
The moment we crossed the front door’s threshold, we squatted and barred our pale backsides, visible to all in the full moon. Our knees touching (mine aching), Ava grabbed my hand.
“Do you think anyone’s watching?”
The entire village. I squeezed her fingers. “No. No one’s paying any attention to us.” As our bladders took what seemed forever to empty, I decided this is one of those family moments Ava would always remember, and hopefully giggle about in the future.
The water buffalo shifts. His breathing deepens. I’m sure he’s going to try to gain the trail again, to do what is expected of him. And if he doesn’t, will they slaughter him here and now? That I could not bear. The farmers ready themselves, wrap slack rope ends around hands. This time the buffalo will succeed and we’ll be off.
The buffalo shifts again, moving his back legs further apart. I wait for the exhale, wait for the buffalo to scramble to the trail. Searching inside me for the strength I will need to walk on, I find it as elusive as the elephants I seek. With his next breath, the buffalo spreads his legs further and pees. Rivulets of yellow waste race downhill.
Ava winks at me.
I gaze across the incised narrow valley to more jungle and pocket-sized rice fields—landscape which beckons my wild-at-heart soul awaits—boiled peanuts, velvety corn soup, slippery piglets, women in dangly headdresses, and maybe, just maybe, an elephant.
Ava interprets my yearning gaze and sings. “I’ve got my ticket for the long way round. The one with the prettiest of views. It’s got mountains. It’s got rivers. It’s got sights that make you shiver.”
With my eyes I follow the trail ahead until it disappears around the bend. It’s mucky. No smoke curls from above the trees. The village where we will stop is more than Mr. Wong’s ‘twenty minute’ away. Tomorrow, we will retrace our steps, do it all again and more, on our return to the Nam Ou and the slow boat. Will tomorrow’s planned five hours become ten?
“It’s up to you.” Lyda reads my thoughts. “I’ve got plenty of pig shots, although it would be nice to get close-ups of the women.”
“I could go either way,” Ava says.
For both, being labeled a wimp was riskier than pressing on.
"I’m sure he’s going to try to gain the trail again, to do what is expected of him. And if he doesn’t, will they slaughter him here and now? "
I, too, always had risen to difficult tasks. Held Peter’s hand as cancer withered his muscles and squeezed the breath out of him, paid the mortgage and dealt with the terrible-twos after he died, finished a 55-mile cycling race in the rain. If I had shied away, I would have called myself a wimp. Because of the damn, though, the coin-jingling headdresses, piglets, and salty peanuts may vanish. This trip could be our only opportunity.
Life breaks you. Leaves you torn, spent, exhausted. Elusive elephants will beckon from around the next bend. The monsoon clouds will empty, leeches will hang from every damp branch in search of passing warmth, buffalos will be lead down trails to their fate. You have to feel to live. It is the reason you are here. When you are doubled-over, at your tipping point, let yourself lean against a tree, let the mountains and rivers nourish you. Let the orchids burst with blossoms. Tell yourself you have savored as many shivering moments as you could.
I shift my gaze to the water buffalo. His large brown eyes watch me. His bent knee sinks further into the muck as he licks his nose and talks to me, not with words but with his stare.
“We’re done,” he says. “Call the slow-boat. Have them pick you up today instead of tomorrow.”
I turn to Mr. Wong. “Mr. Wong,…” and motion to a baggie-encased cell phone.
Lisa K. Harris is a Pushcart Prize nominated author who has published more than 150 essays, fiction, and popular press articles about a variety of topics including growing-up, outdoor adventure, science, and coping with speed bumps. She is currently finishing a novel about life at the end of the road and is seeking an agent. Lisa lives in Tucson, Arizona, with two daughters, four cats, nine desert tortoises, and a blind herding dog named Noel. When she isn’t writing or tending to her menagerie, Lisa works as a wildlife biologist. For a complete publication list, please see her website www.lisakharris.com.