The sun sat high in the sky and reflected off the river below with intensity. At the foot of the steps and along the shore, women and men boarded thin river boats. One at a time they balanced across a thick log, stepping across the near boats to get to the outermost one. They carried baskets full of clothes and vegetables. One had a big tank of fuel that you could smell a hundred feet away.
Along the river, boats crossed slowly, puttering, their long thin propellers sticking out the backside like straws from thin coke bottles. On the far side, a dusty clay landing beach was full of commotion as men and women carried their belongs up the hill and beyond.
Nick sat on the side of the steps, hiding under the shade of a tree, watching the back and forth of bodies and cargo move. A few steps above, a couple of young boys approached, nodding as they stepped down towards him.
“No. Just watching,” replied Nick.
“Is it your first time in Laos?” asked the young man.
Nick turned to face the question. “Yes. Do you have a boat?”
“No. But I can help you find a boat if you would like to cross.” He waved down to a man at the tail end of one of the boats who stood up and waved back.
“No, I don’t need a boat. I was just curious.”
“How do you like Laos?” asked the shorter fellow.
“I like it a lot,” replied Nick turning back to watch the parade.
“Where are you from?”
“Good question. My passport is from America.”
“You are from New York!”
“I am. Good guess.” Nick smiled at the young man.
“I have met many people from New York. Is it cold in New York? I am told it is very cold now. Is it cold?”
“Right now it is very cold.”
“Why did you come to Laos?”
“For the waters,” Nick laughed. “I was told by a fellow in Casablanca that I should come for the waters.” Another chuckle.
“I have never been to Casablanca. Is it nice?” asked the short young man.
Nick shrugged. “Neither have I.” The two young men looked at him a bit confused.
Down the road, sitting at a plastic table, a young couple chatted, camera and beer in hand under a large shady tree. They watched as a couple of monks walked past, their saffron robes shining in the bright sun. They snapped a couple of pictures as they passed.
“What do you do in New York?” asked the taller young man.
“I don’t do anything,” replied Nick. “I travel.” He held up his hand and extended two fingers, twitching them back and forth like two legs walking. “I haven’t been to New York in a long time. I just travel.” More finger legs.
This clearly confused the two men. They exchanged words back and forth each one twitching their fingers back and forth.
“What did you do before you traveled?”
What an awful question to ask Nick thought. What an awful thing to have to think about. Computers, email, phones, yelling, anger, frustration, silence, money.
“I was an engineer,” replied Nick.
“That is good. I am a lawyer,” said the tall young man. “My cousin is a teacher. But I am a lawyer.”
Anger, frustration, email, phones, money.
“Lawyer. That is good,” replied Nick in a lower voice. Nick wiped his right arm clean of sweat. “It’s very hot today.”
“It is winter,” said the shorter fellow. Nick chuckled.
“It really is. It really is,” he said.
“Do you have a room? My boss owns a hotel. Do you have a place to stay?” asked the tall one.
“I thought you were a lawyer?” asked Nick. “But you sell hotel rooms?”
“I am a lawyer. But my boss owns a hotel and he has asked me to find tourists for his hotel. Do you have a room?”
Exhaustion, silence, shouting, typing, emails.
Nick paused for a moment. It was hot sitting on the steps although the two young men stood motionless and calm in the beating sun, their slender bodies calm in the heat.
Ringing phones, meetings, documents, anger, exhaustion.
“I do like Laos but I don’t know why I came. I suppose I came because I wanted to see. Also, I wanted to leave New York.”
“I want to move to America. Is it nice in America? I want to be a lawyer in America. Is it nice?” asked the taller one.
“You should stay here, America is like an old man. You should stay here. There is more life here. Trust me,” replied Nick.
The two men turned to each other and exchanged words. Finally, with a confused face, the young man asked “are there a lot of old men in America? I have seen TV and I do not see old men. You are not old.”
Nick leaned back, raising a hand to his forehead and wiping it dry.
“America is slow and old. I’m sorry to tell you this but America is the past. Asia is the future. Asia is like a young man. Full of life.” Nick turned to the river. Boats kept puttering across the shallow river like a stream of ants.
“America is like an old man who is waiting for death. It is nice but old. You should stay here.”
A few steps back from the road, a crowd of travelers gathered around a fruit stall, handing out cups of fruit drinks.
“But in America, you can make more money than you can here. There are more jobs,” explained the short man.
Nick exhaled slowly. He adjusted his shirt and leaned back some more. He reached inside his backpack, pulled out a bottle of water and drank. The front of his shirt was checkered with sweat stains. It was really hot.
Rushing, emails, frowning, phone calls, money.
“There are jobs. Even for lawyers. But they are for old people with old problems. America is an old man. But here, there is life,” explained Nick. “Soon, Asia will be better than America. You will be surprised and sad if you go to America. Don’t go. Stay here. Sell hotel rooms. Eat the fish. But forget about America.”
“I do not understand why America is old. Do they not have children?” asked the lawyer.
“Listen. I’m sorry about all this. They do have children but not as many as your parents have. There are jobs and you can find a job. But I think you will be better off here. This is the future.”
Both the young men laughed at this thought, exchanged words and laughed some more. The future was not now.
“I do not understand you. You say there are jobs and you say America is old. But I have seen the TV and I do not see old people,” explained the tall young man. “But I must leave to find more people for the hotel. If you need a hotel room, I will be selling rooms at the market tonight. You can tell me more about America then.” And with that, the two young men climbed up the stairs and walked away, striding past the young couple and crowd of fruit drinkers before turning down a side street.
Across the river, Nick watched as children, barefoot, chased after a chicken, up and down the red clay earthen streets. Nick heard their faint squawks and giggles.
Computers, frowns, anger, phone calls, meetings, money. New York was far away now. Old and slow. Along the street, monks walked, some talking, one speaking on his cell phone. Behind the house, a drum started beating, rhythmically, echoing off the trees and down along the flowing river.
Nick stood up and made his way down the steps, waving at a boat driver who pointed him on towards his boat. Nick stepped gingerly across thin boats before climbing on board the outermost boat full of clothes and vegetables, men and women and fuel tanks that you could smell from a distance. Pushing off, the boat began to putter across the river to the clay landing on the other side where children chased a chicken.