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  • At the speedboat pier I purchased two tickets and checked in with the local police - standard operating procedure in Laos. There were six of us plus our speedboat driver heading north that day, including a tall and dour Frenchman and some Lao nationals. The boat was about 20 feet long and no more than four feet wide. We sat two by two in little wood cubby holes barely big enough for our legs. The Lao men, having grown up in a culture accustomed to squatting, looked quite comfortable in their boxes, while Susanne, the Frenchman and I grimaced each time we feebly shifted our legs to avoid having them fall asleep.

    The first hour of the seven-hour journey was a real rush - riding through the water at 70 kph with no seatbelt, protected only by a crash helmet. Sitting as we were, mostly in pairs of two, all of us in helmets, I felt as if we were a bobsled crew touring Disney's Jungle Cruise ride in a speedboat. The image was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

    Ninety minutes into the trip we stopped briefly at a police checkpoint, where a Lao officer chatted with our driver while smoking a large homemade cigar that smelled distinctly like pot. A local villager missing half of his teeth, smelling of cow manure and smoking the largest joint I've ever seen, came up to the boat and thumbed for a ride upriver to the next village. Because the seat to my right was unoccupied, he climbed in next to me, putting his smouldering zeppelin between his toes to keep it away from the wind. As soon as we took off it became obvious that this poor little fellow had never traveled in a speedboat before. His mouth locked in a huge smirk as if he were riding his first roller coaster, while matted layers of hair flew up over the back of his head, dangling horizontally in front of the Frenchman's grumpy face.

    After a minute or two, the villager began to grin like a madman, not unlike that famous picture of Charles Manson. I offered him the extra helmet that sat in front of Susanne, which he put over his unbelievably small head. He unwisely flipped the visor up and down until he raised it so high that the wind pressure snapped it backwards and nearly took his head off. Once he settled into this new element, the villager then realized that the visor would deaden the wind enough for him to smoke that joint of his, so he removed the cigar from between his toes and began to puff at it under the helmet. I struggled to maintain a straight face as the smoke filled the inside of his headgear and billowed out the sides.

    When we reached the village 10 minutes later, he took off the helmet, looked at me and said "Thank you" in slow but precise English. He then offered me his rank, blackened joint. I politely shook my head back and forth, gesturing with my hands to my helmet in the hopes it would mean something to him. The villager smiled again, jumped off the boat and threw the joint into the Mekong - I guess it had served its purpose. He then walked up the beach and vanished from view into a lush thicket of trees.
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