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Aiming for the heart


ONE FOOT IN LAOS, by Dervla Murphy. Overlook Press, 2001, 284 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

Dervla Murphy’s journeys as a travel writer, usually in the remoter, poorer parts of the world, are made, appropriately enough, in the old manner — on foot, by donkey or mule, or on decrepit trucks or buses on their last legs. Her favorite mode of transport, however, is the humble bicycle, an attachment that dates from a cycle ride made in 1962 from her native Ireland to India, a journey described in her first book, aptly titled “Full Tilt.”

Murphy is an avowedly incautious traveler, someone who believes that a certain amount of risk is essential, and that only limited insights are afforded those not prepared to forgo their creature comforts for a degree of personal risk.

“Within a couple of generations,” she opines, “we have become a timid race, neurotically overprotective, believing that physical risk (like physical discomfort) should, if possible, be completely excluded from everyday life.”

Each of her books describes a different calamity: hepatitis and a cracked rib in Madagascar, the recurrent threat of rape on the road from Ankara to Van, an attack by rabid dogs in the middle of a Yugoslav forest (one dog she shot through the head, the other was dispatched with a bullet in the rib cage), the threat of murder in Africa. The writer no longer travels with a revolver stowed away in her saddlebag, preferring instead to place her faith in people and the hope that it is reciprocated.

In Laos, as the title of her most recent book, “One Foot in Laos,” implies, a bus accident on the mountainous road to Luang Prabang puts her foot out of action, although she manages to soldier on with the help of local remedies — herbal baths, salves, sand compresses — and a bicycle that she breaks in on some of the tougher back roads of the country. Heat-stricken and limping from her inflamed ankle, the author gamely struggles on, incapacitated but not hobbled.

The fact that Murphy, one of the world’s most eminent travel writers, and heir to the great tradition of British women travel writers that includes the likes of Mary Russell, Anne Blunt and Freya Stark, should have elected to write a book on Laos speaks volumes about the country’s recent reappearance on the world map. It has certainly come a long way in the decade since one writer noted seeing the minister of finance selling quails eggs in Vientiane’s Morning Market each day before official government office hours.

These days the rustic, commodity-scarce market of 10 years ago, with its weavings, poultry, fish wrapped in banana leaves and bottles of vodka sold by impoverished staff from the Russian Embassy, is full of imported goods from around the world, an image of selective plenty confirming the author’s fear that Laos has become, in the words of one local the author befriends, “a stable ‘investment environment’ for predators.”

This is a controversial book with a strong message. It presents a bleak vision of what can happen to a porous and vulnerable nation when the international community, made up of well-funded aid organizations, multinational corporations, highly paid specialists, consultants to developing countries and zealous nongovernment organizations looking for a worthy cause, decides that you are next in line for “improvement.”

In the view of agribusinessmen, macroeconomists and the teams of consultants and other highly paid “experts” now descending on Laos, land must be used more efficiently. With a government that seems only too happy to implement their suggestions, there are well-founded fears that the hitherto self-sufficient Lao peasantry are being turned into low-wage earners tied to commercial production.

Murphy’s unease about the uses of land grows as she watches a bulldozer leveling a rural area for a complex of multistory hotels just outside the city of Luang Prabang, now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Local residents crouch nearby, “watching this novel monster changing their environment forever.” Later, she meets a private tour operator who tells her that “those villagers would have to be ‘relocated’ because ‘our visitors don’t like to have dirty villages so close.’ ”

Extolling the use of herbal remedies that have been in use for hundreds of years and seem to have worked a treat on her own foot, the writer rails against foreigners who randomly dispense Western medicine to villagers and hill tribes in the form of aspirin, antiseptic ointments and throat lozenges, noting that these “can quickly undermine respect for what is accessible and affordable; this is our contemporary ‘intervention dilemma’ in microcosm.”

Many Lao are already sold on the idea of potent antibiotics, which are indiscriminately taken at the first twinge of ill health. It is only a short step from such musings for the author, freshly fired up, to ask why governments that “ineffectively spend billions opposing ‘recreational’ drugs ignore these other drug barons, the pharmaceutical companies?”

Murphy’s firepower is not only directed at the increasingly avaricious Lao government and its foreign collaborators, as this nominally communist state would once have termed them. Western backpackers and the values disseminated by this mostly young brethren of travelers who have descended on Laos come in for some harsh criticism, as do the breezy evaluations and dismissive wisdom of popular travel guides such as those published by Lonely Planet.

Taking exception to Lonely Planet’s assertion that “there’s really nothing to see in Kasi,” she comments that the backpackers who have adopted this travel series as their bible apparently “need something specific to focus on: wats, waterfalls, caves, tribal villages. Natural beauty is not enough — which tells us a lot about the contemporary traveler’s mind-set.”

Rather than merely observe the daily rites, customs and chores of the people she meets from a polite distance, the author communes, sitting down at the table of Lao and sharing their lives, if only briefly. A student of people and the local perspective, the writer demonstrates how she is willing to be swayed by her guests, to have her opinions shaped by the experience of travel. Like a good magistrate, she only makes her judgments after she has let everyone have their say.

Nature must also be experienced in the same way. On one occasion she spreads her sleeping bag over the rough earth of a mountain path; on another she happily passes the night in the open depths of a dark forest, a world of plants and reptiles. On another night, with no village in sight, the writer hunkers down among the dead in a forest of brick and stone stupas. Ensconced in her cozy mausoleum, the author writes up her diary for the day by the light of a camping lamp suspended from the bottom branch of a tree, assured, by virtue of the Lao people’s terror of nocturnal spirits, of an uninterrupted night.

Now in her late 60s, Murphy’s passion for travel remains unquenched. Although the writer, commenting on her motives for traveling to wild and bewildering corners of the earth, has gone on record as saying that “I just go to enjoy myself — I’m completely irresponsible, absolutely no commitment to anything,” this is not the impression conveyed in this deeply caring and compassionate work.