Head above water

My grandpa hands me a pair of socks. Inside is a generous sum of money and a note saying, “When travelling, keep this in your socks. It will keep your head just above water in an emergency.” Flash forward a month and I find myself on a two day boat trip travelling down the Mekong River with no money, and no passport.

Head above water

It is 6:15am in Luang Probang, Laos. The soothing sound of the classic marimba ringtone slowly shudders me awake on this cool February morning. Having already avoided a 5am wake up to watch the local monks giving alms, I determinedly get out of bed. Blurry-eyed, toothbrush in hand, the sound of my travel partner India resetting the code to our room’s safe the night before rings in my head. I spit the thought and the toothpaste into the sink and stumble down to breakfast. Fresh pineapple and eggs greet me, a well worn breakfast choice over the past few weeks. 

Our morning feast settles and we throw our big bags onto the back of a tuk tuk. It speeds away towards the river, which marks the gateway to our next day of travel. A herd of tuk tuks follow suit as our 18-person tour group bumps along Laos’ dirt roads for the final time. In all honesty, it was a section of the journey we had all been dreading, oh boo-hoo. A two day, slow moving boat trip with only one toilet felt like a drastic change in climate compared with the hotels we had naively been getting used to.

Despite what all of our privileged imaginations had led us to believe, the boat arrived in the form of a 36 seater, slightly rickety cruiser. This was luxury compared with the dingy we had all envisioned. Jumping on board, we settled down for our initial seven hour journey. Some opted for naps, some bedded down with books, whilst I listened to a podcast; Woman’s Hour was on today’s menu. Cosying up with a blanket and Radio 4 charming me into sleep, the Mekong River slowly chugged past. An hour or two had ticked by of blissful nothingness when I decided to do something productive. In approximately 48 hours we would be approaching the Thai border, so I thought it best to transfer my previously exchanged Thai Baht from my hand luggage and into my trusty money belt. Immediately, I knew what had gone wrong.

My money was not in my hand luggage.

My money was not in my rucksack.

My money and passport were tucked away in the safe in our hotel room.

Profanity escaped my mouth and my logical brain kicked into gear. Searching for our group tour guide, I found her under a pile of blankets, asleep. As I explained the situation, my tone became more and more frantic until I turned around to face India’s open arms - and wept.

By the time I had finished feeling sorry for myself, our local Laos guide, somewhat resembling superman by this point, had managed to contact the hotel and track down the contents of my stupid mistake. 

“The plan is to get it onto the next public boat,” he described, “It should be with us in the next two days.” Everyone else had done the logical thinking for me. I had committed a traveller’s sin.

Bring! Bring! The local guide’s trustworthy brick phone buzzed with news. I watched as he nodded, spoke in hushed tones, then left the call.

“They’ve missed the public boat.” Karma.

“But-” There is hope, “You have two options. You can either put your belongings on a public bus to the Thai border but risk having all your belongings stolen or - hire a speedboat.” 

Very cool, but I was sceptical. A solution as adventurous as that comes at a price, $50 in fact.

Now surely when your vital belongings are in jeopardy, money is no question, but my frugal traveller’s mindset was still on shift; $50 is a good chunk of my earnings. $50 is a nice hotel for a night. $50 is two weeks worth of food. But then, in a Hollywood-style flashback, I remembered my Grandpa’s words, “This will keep your head above water in an emergency.” Well, it was an emergency and the irony of being on a boat in that present moment seemed too good to be true.

“I’ll take the speedboat.” Thank you, Grandpa.

Calls were made, teamwork was harnessed and needless stress was banished as the distant sound of an engine began to come into the clear. Gliding through the Mekong River, the speedboat pulled up to the side of our boat just 40 minutes after the signal was called. A man wearing a motorbike helmet captained this wooden torpedo and attached himself to our boat. 

Presenting a brown packet stapled securely shut, we shared a moment of eye contact. As I briefly looked into his eyes, I saw him telling the story of his bizarre day at work for days to come, and about the Western fool who was responsible. Checking the packet’s contents, all of my belongings had been returned. We exchanged the $50 for the speedboat and I tipped the rest of my dollars, a deserved thank you for picking up the pieces of my disgraceful error.

The trust required on all levels of this farcical operation is a lesson to be remembered, besides the basic moral: check your valuables.

I sincerely thank the kindness demonstrated by the hotel staff for possessing the honesty to return my belongings, understanding the value of honesty above simply exploiting someone else’s mistake for their own benefit. I am not so sure this would be the same of everyone who may have encountered my goods, should they have taken a different route. Kindness will be rewarded, even if it doesn’t always come in the form of a heroic rescue like mine. Beat that, Bond.

3 Comments

  • Luke Taylor

    On 21 March 2018, 10:47 Luke Taylor commented:

    What a thrilling tale!!

  • Joanna Bailey

    On 21 March 2018, 11:47 Joanna Bailey commented:

    This is lovely :)

  • Diana Walton

    On 26 March 2018, 10:23 Diana Walton commented:

    A brilliant traveller's story, Maddie...I was with you on that boat!! And what a wonderful Grandpa too...

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