Southward Storytelling

Posted on
December 6, 2010 by

“Hey Shahla, where are we?”

“I don’t know, I don’t recognize this place.”

“Hey look! There’s someone coming towards us."

“Let’s talk to him"

“Who are you?”

“I’m the storyteller.”

“Where are we?”

“You’re in Storyland and this is your story.

“You arrived at the border to Laos feeling excited to see a new country but sad to be leaving the diverse cultures and landscapes of China. The air was humid and holding the midday sun’s heat so fully that to escape the clutches of it was an impossible feat. Your only option was to get back on your bikes and ride forward to the next pocket of civilization. Once there, the possibility of getting a cold drink and a room with a fan might present itself. So through the grass and jungle covered hills you rode. Amongst fields of yesteryear that once brought wealth to the local farmers and landowners but now lay deserted, subject only to the manipulation of nature. Not all was abandoned around you though and sporadically you met with small plots of corn and rice. The difference you noticed between the production of these farms and the ones you were used to seeing in China was staggering. Unlike the vast, lush fields of China that could feed a billion and still have enough left over to sell on foreign markets, the fields surrounding you now looked thin and bare. However, they seemed to be adequate for sustaining the small population of local hill dwellers and the odd tourist passing by on a bicycle. You definitely ate your share of the local grub after pedaling up the steep and windy roads, sweating up a storm all day long. It was very draining for you, and the one local dish that always seemed to be the best for getting you back on the road at lunchtime was the soup. It was a bowl of noodles, vegetables and a little meat full to the brim with salty broth. After polishing the bowl off you could feel the energy coming back into your muscles. Feeling yourselves becoming hydrated from a dry and fatigued state was always an extremely satisfying sensation. Your knowledge of your bodies’ needs became very acute during your cycle travels. The only problem now was that the food was still a bit unknown to you. Trying new things, however, was not at all disagreeable for you and in fact you always looked forward to tasting some new and interesting flavours. You’d always pay attention to what you believed the nutritional and calorific values were and how perishable it might have been. That made it easier for you to get the right amount of energy and nutrients into your bodies regularly.

    "The feeling of coming upon a village set in amongst the steep hills and thick vegetation was one of relief and joy. The first thing you’d look for would be a place to get a cold drink and a snack. Not all the villages had cold drinks but when there was it meant a core temperature cool down for two overheated travelers. It also meant a nice little rest for your bottoms. When cycling and coming across some little boys in these villages they would always hold their hands up in expectation of a high-five as you pedaled by. Their smiles were as wide as the road when your hand would slap against theirs. You’d both laugh and yell “Sabaidee!” to the little ones that weren’t old enough to get in on the high five action. That seemed to get smiles all around, even from the parents and grandparents.

    "To enter a city in these surroundings was slightly different. Oh, the kids would still be there and high fives would be had by all but the cities would also have so much more to offer variety seeking cycle tourists when it came to stuffing good food into your hungry faces. It’s also where you discovered one of the coolest ways of enjoying/cooking a meal. It was introduced to you as the “Lao Barbecue” and looked like a flying saucer. It had a dome coming up out of the centre with holes in it that would be used to fry things. Around the bottom of the dome was a tray that was to hold soup broth into which you could throw things to boil. It seemed like the ultimate Swiss design by putting a raklette grill and a fondue pot together in one cooking apparatus. It was heated using hot coals underneath it in a thick clay pot. The heat could be regulated by throwing ice or cold water onto the coals as needed. This was truly an interactive culinary experience.

    "The architecture of the cultural buildings in the cities was very pleasing to the eye and made for some good exploring. There were multi headed snake statues guarding over the sacred temples and shingles resembling serpent scales covering the roofs.  These were a beautiful and mystical part of the culture you were now immersed in. The robes of the monks had turned from red for the Tibetan monks to orange for the ones surrounding you now. The colour had changed but the monks, to you, were still a symbol for peace, tolerance and life in the slow lane.

    "The wildlife was beginning to change too. In one small town you noticed a man tying a string around the neck of a beetle that was about three inches in length and had a large horn protruding upwards from its face. He then gave the loose end of the string to his toddler son so as to have a pet on a leash. You sat down beside them to watch and noticed a pot full of these beetles that had evidently been collected for dinner. The cultural differences between your families and the family in front of you were not so great. You would play with the animals that would eventually end up on the table as well. However, you couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the man’s son. His pet beetle was far more exciting than the farm animals you grew up with. It looked like fun to you and actually seemed a bit tempting seeing as you were contemplating the idea of traveling with a pet. In the end you didn’t give in to temptation and hit the road as a duo once again. This however, would not be the last time you were to have an encounter with a creature of the insect variety.

    "At the hour before dusk you would be on alert for a place to set up camp for the night. When you found a spot that looked ideal for a tent and a good night’s sleep you would quite often be forced to take it even after discovering that it was infested by ants. So in a frenzy the tent would get set up and you’d dive in through the door like Indiana Jones making sure to close it up as quickly as possible. That night’s sleep was doomed to be a bad one and the mysterious puffed rice cookie you bought the day before was to be your downfall. The plastic wrap that was surrounding the puffed rice wasn’t a good seal and the ants detected the sugary syrup that was an ingredient in the newly dubbed “Cookie From Hell”. The ants were small enough to find a port hole into your seemingly impenetrable tent fortress and they began a retrieval mission of epic proportions. You both woke to find hungry ants covering the better part of your bodies and you began to shake and rub them off as they tried to get pieces of you to bring back to their queen. Finally amongst the confusion and delirium the Cookie From Hell was found and quickly cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. Actually you just threw it out the door as far as you could but I thought that sounded better. I think I’ve heard that in a story before.”

    “Yeah, it’s from The Lord Of The Rings.”

    “Oh Yeah. Great story. Anyway, after you’d dealt with the ordeal and managed to salvage a couple hours of sleep, you woke to find that the Cookie From Hell wasn’t the only thing that was on the ants’ menu from last night. Your sandals were covered in ants that were actually attempting to create a mound out of them! There was no way around this sandal fiasco and so it was destined to recur in the following weeks. Even after you crossed the border into Thailand you would find yourselves dealing with the ant race. Fortunately you never brought questionable food inside your tent after that and so you were able to sleep with the ants safely outside where they belonged.

    "The transition you experienced with the crossing of the Laos/Thailand Friendship bridge over the Mekong river was smooth. A lot of the culture was basically the same however the Thai people were living with the influence of the western world, namely convenience. Fast food chains and convenience stores selling consumables and disposables were littered throughout the cities, towns and along the highways. As out of place as this presence seemed to you it would not be long before you were not only used to it but also slaves to its super-cooling, mega-energizing powers of persuasion. These powers were revealed to you in the form of chocolate and icy cold soft and rehydration drinks. As if these powers were not enough to steal your soul, every 7-11 you entered was equipped with air conditioning akin to refrigeration. These moments of arctic bliss were anxiously awaited as a rabbit hole to wonderland.

    "The area you were now covering had many interesting historical eras. One presented itself to you at the site of Phimai. The Khmer empire was vast and stretched across a large part of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and all of Cambodia. The stonework in the temple at Phimai was done with extreme precision. Every diety was meticulously carved out and placed in perfect harmony upon the walls. Walking amidst the dancing Hindu gods and divinely serene Buddhas instilled a feeling of tranquility inside you. The shape and size of the temple itself was an indication of just how powerful and wealthy this empire had been. Or at least it was an introduction to it. You were to discover the true extent of the Khmer’s strength and fortune across the Cambodian border at Angkor. Here the temple at Phimai was dwarfed like a Lego-land version of Angkor Wat. The ruins of Angkor were once the capital of the empire and are a maze of buildings and courtyards. Even after nine centuries of exposure to the elements it was easy to see the talents that were employed in its making. Giant faces gazed over the townsfolk as they went about their everyday lives. Stone elephants stood holding up walls and numerous images were carved into almost every surface. A feeling almost akin to jealousy crept its way inside you as you thought of what Marco Polo might have entered into had he approached this place. One thing he would not have seen however is the sight of nature trying to reclaim her unearthed stones. Huge trees spread their roots across and into buildings creating an image of the diligence of man coupled with the persistence of nature.”

    “I remember this site provoking a flood of thoughts. It took humans a relatively short period of time to manipulate the stones and create their temples. Nature would work so much longer to reshape the temples and reposition those same stones. Those time frames put the span of our own lives into perspective. But the stones themselves, that had always been there, turned our lives into a flash. A mere heartbeat in the life of the universe.”

    “Hey, hey, hey! Hold on there! Who’s the storyteller here?”

    “Sorry, but your storytelling was so good it just brought me back there for a moment.”

    “Yes well I do tell a good story don’t I?”

    “Yes you do.”

    “Well then where was I?”

    “Umm, nature?”

    “Oh yes, as you jumped off the boat…"

    "Wait a minute, what boat?"

    "The boat you took from Koh Phi Phi of course.  Honestly! You'd think it wasn't even your story.  As you jumped off the boat into the crystal clear water your minds were focused on the possibility of encountering a sea turtle face to face. You had no real idea of the size of the gentle sea creatures or the movements they might make. You’d seen them through the impenetrable barrier of television but never in their own element. As you swam along on the surface you soon came face to face with one coming up for air. Thankful that evolution did not grant these creatures gills, you watched their flippers propelling them upwards like oars on a submarine. Framed by a deep blue background it was difficult to judge their size and they certainly were in no hurry to reach the surface. Once they had paddled themselves to the surface next to you it was easy to see that they were much bigger than you had expected. After enjoying an invigorating breath of fresh air with you they would slowly descend back to their meals. As they sat on the shallow bottom and ate, scraping chunks of coral off with their parrot like beaks, you felt as if you were watching a slow motion video of a dog chewing on a bone. Their indifference to the other creatures in their surroundings made them easy to observe, an attribute that would not be present in the sea dwellers next on your list for observation: sharks. But that’s a story for another time.”

    “What? Why?”

    “Never question the story teller. Now shut up and listen. You chose to make your entry into Malaysia on the Northwest coast. This meant a ferry ride in a long skinny wooden boat that would take you and your transport to the first Malaysian port. Here you discovered your first major cultural mix in this new land. It was to be Chinese restaurants and shops situated alongside Malay options. You smiled as you saw Malays sitting in the Chinese restaurants and Chinese people in the Malay ones. You wondered how many cooking secrets were being shared amongst the cooks in town and how much fusion had actually become commonplace. How long would it take to become true Malay cuisine? One, two, three generations or more? However at the moment the only mix apparent was that of Chinese and Malay.

    "It didn’t take long to ride the distance to the popular destination of Georgetown. Now the third culture was thrown in to the mix. You could smell the mix of spices from a mile away and knew the scent could only be coming from an Indian chef. This was going to be interesting. I mean, who in this world could resist a good curry? Sure enough, Chinese people sat beside Malays and enjoyed the flavours of the near-by subcontinent. The mingling of people in this restaurant was like a microcosm of the entire city where Hindu temples sat across the street from Buddhist temples, kitty corner to Malay mosques. Here there was segregation but there was fusion also which made you curious about the future. Would this mixture create strength or weakness? Would future generations embrace or reject eachother? There was talk of racism but what you saw was tolerance and even commeraderie.

    "And with the Malays and their commeraderie, you found yourselves among the throngs crossing over to Singapore to earn their daily bread. Although on bicycles, you took the motorbike lane and were constantly deafened and occasionally choked by the emissions of thousands of motorbikes. After what felt like a full kilometer of sharp s-bends, steep inclines and general motoring mayhem, the pile up began at the immigration window. Here people were processed so quickly and efficiently that you felt like you were at a McDonald’s drive through and were tempted to ask for fries with the stamp in your passport. Without testing the immigration officer’s sense of humour, you rode over the bridge and into Singapore. There was a difference noticeable from the beginning as you pedaled through landscaped parks and down flawless roads amongst new housing and apartment blocks. It seemed like the correct term for Singapore should be “city-country”. It was an easy ride from the north to the south coast and a trip around the whole country could be done in a day. It felt more like you were exploring a city than a country and the pace of life seemed to reflect that feeling. It was not long before the fast-paced city style of living guided you to the harbor and onto a ferry bound for Indonesia.

    "Although primarily Muslim, there remain a few small pockets of Hinduism. Born of legends and fueled by the tourist dollar, one such pocket revolves around shadow puppets. A team of specialists worked long hours to create intricately designed and brilliantly coloured leather shadow puppets representing characters from the Ramayana. A skilled puppeteer brought them to life from behind a backlit screen. An enormous team of musicians and singers provided background music. And you sat there and were spellbound by the show. The combination of the darkened room, the wall of sound and the dancing shadows is a recipe for dramatic representation that could stand up against Pixar. Hmmm. Well, it seems my time with you has come to an end. I have other people to meet and other stories to tell. It has been a pleasure.”

    “Thank you story teller . You do tell a good story.”

    “Bye guys, until we meet again.”


    “That was good but we could’ve done better.”

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