An Irishman's Diary
No matter how far you run from Christmas, it will always catch up with you, as Scrooge found out.
Hopefully, our almost annual flight from the festival is not motivated entirely by his killjoy mentality. We actually rather like convivial meals, exchanges of presents with loved ones, even the occasional heart-warming carol. But once the first sugary chorus from Wham slurps down the supermarket aisles (“Last Christmas I gave you my heart”), and the Toy Show starts instilling ever more conspicuous consumption in the nation’s children, the urge to escape is irresistible.
You’d have thought that we were fairly safe in Laos, where Christmas is not even a holiday. Better still, eight total strangers, who soon became our congenial travelling companions on an adventurous trip, all shared our aversion to forced yuletide jollity.
Certainly there was no vestige of tinsel, no hint of muzak, and no mad crush of shoppers, in the magically calm night market of Luang Prabang as December 25th approached.
Driving on south, through horizons etched in misty karstic filigree, we began to feel we might be lucky this time. Christmas Day would be just another beautiful day on
Planet Earth, which is surely the best gift any of us should dare hope for.
On December 25th itself, we arrived at our hostel outside Vang Vieng just as the sun was sinking, highlighting the massive limestone curtains of Pha Daeng mountain, across the Nam Song river. It was a view to savour very slowly, while waiting for pre-dinner drinks.
Alas, the charming waitresses who brought those drinks out to us must have thought we would feel more at home if they wore Santa hats. They seemed painfully aware that this shambolic headgear did not sit well with their elegant sinh skirts and silk tops.
Perhaps out of a kindly impulse to show the staff that we appreciated their efforts, one of our group slipped into town and came back with red floppy hats for all of us. There was nothing for it but to surrender gracefully, or as gracefully as you can while keeping a limp white bobble out of your shrimp soup. Globalised Christmas had won, yet again.
The next day dawned with crystalline light over Pha Daeng, its vertical faces like a fantastical theatrical backdrop against the flatiron plain below. I decided to see if I could find some birdlife on such a perfect morning. We had all been struck by the absence of birds on our long trip through Laos.
“Birds?” our guide had shrugged. “Try the evening market.” Hunger makes a bad bedfellow with ornithology.
I crossed the river on a bridge whose pillars consisted of massive unexploded bomb casings. Along with countless others that had exploded all too successfully, they had been delivered to Laos courtesy of the CIA’s illegal “Air America” operations in the 1970s. Vang Vieng had been a centre of leftist resistance, and its people had suffered accordingly.
As I moved out on to the plain, every second path was blocked by a sign warning of live ordnance. It was hard to grasp that such a tranquil, exquisite landscape could be so perilous.
As well as my binoculars, I was carrying a bag of illustrated children’s reading books. They were produced by a remarkable little NGO in Luang Prabang, Big Brother Mouse ( www.bigbrothermouse.com). They are recommended to tourists as a more helpful response to begging children than money or sweets.
Little crocodiles of kids were beginning to emerge from the surrounding hamlets, en route to school. but I didn’t imagine they would be interested in the books. These were surely the lucky ones, with schools to go to.
Movement at the crown of a flowering tree distracted me, and I started to focus on birds with absurdly evocative names: red-whiskered bulbuls, racket-tailed drongos.
It was a while before I noticed that I was surrounded by children, all in immaculate white shirts and red kerchiefs. Why, they obviously wondered, would anyone stand staring at a tree? I tentatively held out a little book. A child opened it with wide-eyed wonder, as if he had never seen a picture before. Friends gathered round him. They turned page after page, laughing shyly, tentatively identifying letters.
They moved off at a snail’s pace, reading as they went. This scene repeated itself until I had handed out the last book. Seven clusters of ardent little readers paused repeatedly on their way to the riverbank.
I couldn’t help feeling that they had given me the best Christmas present ever.