Listening for the Alien Heartbeat

My guide failed to mention that to get to our mountain, we have to cross another mountain first. Hours of straight uphill, and each time I think the top is just ahead, another higher top appears.  Mountains?  What was I thinking?  Just when I think I will have to lay down beside the track and die in my boots, we reach the top of the first mountain and start heading down.

After a few hours we reach a Hmong village where we will stay the night.  The Hmong have had a bad deal from history, most recently helping the Americans during the Vietnam War (known here as the “American War”) and then being largely abandoned to the victors.


This village is 5 families, about 21 people, plus about 50 assorted cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys, with 5 shiftless dogs and a few miserable cats.  The Hmong prefer top keep their animals close by (unlike the Khmu who let them roam more freely) and with so many animals roaming around there is no grass, just mud and dung.


The village is a day’s walk from the nearest school, but overall their living conditions don’t seem any worse than other mountain tribes.  Here a girl going to fetch water:


While the Hmong in the towns end up as day laborers earning $80 to $100 a month, the Hmong in the mountains are also poor, but at least have their rice and corn and cows and pigs, and their dignity:


The shower is in the centre of the village, fed by open bamboo pipes running from the nearest stream:


I take my own shower.  Showering with your pants on has the huge advantage of washing your pants and yourself at the same time.

As the light fades the various animals start to bed down.  I am sleeping in a bamboo hut with a grass thatched roof and rough earth floor, sharing the one big room with two mangy dogs, one taciturn adult, five gossiping children, and in the doorway, patiently waiting for when all the world’s food will finally become hers, a large pig:


(events Laos 6 Oct 2013)


We pass through stretches of teak, then huge thickets of great bamboo.  There is a mighty uproar of cicadas, making it harder to keep a cool head and a steady step.  Sheer black walls of mountains to the left ahead.

Early afternoon we arrive at a Khmu village and stop to rest.   It is in the mountains, and at the foot of more mountains.


The Khmu are animist, they pass stories down by the fireside at night, and they grow rice and vegetables in the surrounding forests.   At first the children hang back:


But they are not shy and once I hit my head on a beam, fall over something, and then take my boots off to inspect my feet, they gather in to laugh and horse around.

Adults gather round for a chat.  I suspect they also are expecting me to break something.


From where I sit I can see in the kitchen, a mountain kitchen with a dirt floor and not much in the way of utensils:


As I look at them, I realise how beautiful they are, and how poor.


This girl’s face stays with me as I walk:  you can see beauty and malnourishment,  intelligence and illness.  She is a child, she has little, and she asks for nothing:


We have to leave, otherwise  we will be spending the night in the open.  We  pass by mountain rice and pumpkin growing beside the track.   But then it becomes quite dense, and from here it is all uphill.


I am tired, my boots drag, and the girl sits heavy in my heart.

(events 6 Oct 2013)


Laos is mountains.  So I find a guide:  he is dry and cheerless and carries a machete.

My brief to him is simple:
1. We go to the top of a mountain
2. We don’t talk.
He may like me already.

I take the usual stuff: water, food, knife, sleep bag, mosquito net, medical kit, and enough plaster to cover the human body 11 times. Usually that is enough.

We first cross the Nam Oo river. A boatman in a small narrow boat picks us up. The boat sits low in the water and is unstable. I carefully find the best place for my feet and undo my laces just in case.

Laos: crossing the Nam Oo riverWe start on a well-worn track, skirting rice-fields and following a stream. Women covered head to foot work the fields in the hot sun.

Laos: mountains- stream and fieldsThe track becomes overgrown and the guide’s machete comes out.  But it is not much of a machete.  Now the Malagasy, they know about machetes – probably why they are so cheerful.

We follow the stream up a narrow damp valley. I slip in the mud and leeches drop around us. Water drips from my hat as though it is raining, but it turns out to be my own sweat. Raising the tension is the deafening howl of some unearthly insect:

We reach the top of the valley. These are mostly Hmong mountains, and the trail is fringed with head-high mountain rice, corn and the occasional pumpkin:

Laos: hmong woman on mountain trackThen in the distance I see the rising of mountains.

Laos: mountains ahead(events 6 Oct 2013)


Rising in the mountains of Eastern Tibet
the Mekong flows through the history of China, Burma and Thailand
before bringing its ancient currency to Laos.

Laos: Mekong river and mountainsWith the evening
a mist comes down between the mountains to the river,
like a tide of souls.

Laos: mist coming down mountain to riverTo be born on this bright and muddy river

Laos: girl playing in riveris to be born with the weight of the past at your back.

Laos: girl,river,mountains(events 4 Oct 2013)


Walking through a forest in Madagascar, I am a guest of an ancient race. These gentle fellows, ancient relatives of ours, call each other across the roof of the forest.

Turn up the volume to listen.


These are from May last year, so out of sequence, but one of my eccentric brothers thought they ought to be on the blog.  Of course, listening to my brothers has never done me any good in the past.

(events 120525)


My b&b is a quiet wood place amid a mass of flowering apple trees:

Estonia - Otepää - wood hostel - Apple Blossoms in yard

My room is big enough to get a cow in but not turn it around.  I ask the landlady about the soap.

“No soap.  Guests bring own soap.”

I worry about what kind of guests she usually has:

“Do all your guests carry around soap?”

She sniffs the air slightly:

“Of course.”

Somewhere, I own at least 8 gray suits and 16 crisp white cotton shirts.  But the woman looks at me doubtfully and gives me soap.

Nearby gardens, unkempt in the style of Monet, rife with tulips:

Estonia - Otepää - Monet's GardenI head out for lunch along worn but neat roads.  Working men pass me quietly on old bicycles:

Estonia - Otepää - old road - green houseI stop under a tree for a lunch of bread and cheese, and an apple.  I am joined by frogs, cruising waterbirds and a cool breeze:

Estonia - Otepää - lake with pine treesI walk till evening.  Tall thick forest everywhere I look; 21:00 and still light.

Estonia - Otepää - forest - farmA clear, bird-chorused evening: cool, green and wet.  22:00, and a long sunset barely makes it through the trees:

Estonia - Otepää - Evening Garden with white flowersTwilight.  Cuckoos call among the dark pines.  A transparent Estonian moon offers evensong.

(events 19 May 2013)


I board an early morning train to Puka.  No Estonian seems to have heard of it, especially the sceptical lady at the ticket counter.  But it is on the map and I show it to her.

We pass through a deep fog, mist on the windows.  Outside, empty fields, some abandoned; wells with hand pumps.

At Puka the sun is now out, and I get off for what should be a 20km walk to Otepää.  Puka is what is known in fairytales as a hamlet, so big chestnut trees, piles of wood, but no food and nowhere for a traveller to sleep:

Estonia - Road to Otepaa - Puka HamletIt is however very, very green:

Estonia - Road to Otepaa - Puka - fields of greenI walk past huge armies of big fat daffodils, biding their time for when the planet will be theirs:

Estonia - Road to Otepää - fields of daffodilsBy the road are also lots of those “She loves me / She loves me not” flowers.  A handy place for a chap with a harem and decisions to make.

The road on Google maps is a now thin gray line that occasionally disappears.  I pass old farmhouses with stone walls, wooden barns.

Estonia - Road to Otepaa - farmhouseThe road then narrows, the forest closes in.  A riot of birdsong.  I have done 25km of a 20km route, and am nowhere in sight of anything.  Have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  The Google maps satellite appears to be pointed at Mars.  It is hotter than I thought, I have run out of water, and am now very thirsty.

But this is a friendly land.  Five more  kilometres and I meet a man working his fields.  He gives me a deep drink and refills my containers.  But, in the reserved manner of Estonians, shows no curiosity as to why I am in the middle of rural nowhere, walking, and with no water.

Another 6km, and there is a lake on the left, and a lake on the right.  Pines, firs, super green grass.  Nesting storks.  Evening.  Otepää.

Estonia - Otepää - sunset on a street(events 18 May 2013)