By Violeta Yonkova
She stepped into the vessel cautiously, crossing from the muddy shore that she’d just managed to navigate down through thick vegetation to the wooden floor of the long narrowboat.
The woman sat straight onto the landing separating the seats for ‘us’ the tourists from the driver’s space. Her feet – slightly muddy with just flip flops on, her hands – holding onto a couple of plastic bags with goods, possibly the reason for her outing away from her village.
The boat had just carried the six of us under the concrete bridge connecting the two sides of Nong Khiaw – a village in Northern Laos. Our journey was taking us upriver on the Nam Ou through spectacular karst cliffs. Except for the landing the boat was covered by wooden makeshift top protecting its visitors from the scorching sun, whilst former office chairs had been adjusted into somewhat comfy seats.
Being into one of the two seats right next to the landing I was sat just across from her, the lady who’d joined us by hitching a ride waiving at the boatman from across the expanse of the river.
Her stature hardly visible from the distance yet she‘d managed to draw enough attention. I couldn’t help but wonder about her life. Her hands and feet surely pointing to a life of manual agricultural work, her clothes a tell sign of belonging to one of the hill tribes inhabiting these parts of mountainous Laos with no access to roads, running water, or dare say electricity.
A woman whose journey to Nong Khiaw, 20-odd kilometres downriver, was probably the furthest she’d ever reached.
There I was seated in my office chair curious about her life whilst she sat cross-legged on the floor with the sun beaming on her face. On a certain treacherous stretch the boat bobbed up and down over shallower water and she simply held onto the sides of the boat waiting for it to pass.
Her life was likely full of burdens yet her face gave away happiness. She shyly smiled at us along the way, carefully studying the people she was sharing a ride with. Her voice exuded cheerful, joyful tones each time she spoke to the boatman possibly sharing a joke or two or simply chatting up about what’s happening in her world.
Similarly to how she’d appeared – unexpectedly – so she disappeared. The boat approached the reed-covered shore stopping briefly – no building or village in sight, no road or pathway – just vegetation, the river and the surrounding hills. She took her bags, dropped a little cash into the driver’s hand, smiled shyly at me and stepped back out onto the muddy banks of the river and into her world.