The miners

The miners lived in two makeshift shelters propped up against the banks of the Pa Le river. They had come to this no-mans-land to dredge the river silt for gold—whether legally or illegally I wasn’t sure, but I would guess the latter. We trudged into the first camp. It had taken a full day of walking from the village of Ban Pa Le to get here. A steady rain had fallen all afternoon, turning the path into a muddy boot-sucking quagmire. We were bone-tired. I let my backpack fall off my shoulders and slouched to the ground. There were ten or twelve people in the camp. A middle-aged man jolted forward, hand outstretched, and introduced himself as the boss of the operation. He was a thickset man, with a pudgy face and deep-set eyes that stared out from his dark sweat-glistening skin like white marbles sunk into a fistful of wet brown clay. He was Lao. The rest of the miners were from Vietnam. The Vietnamese eyed me silently with stony expressions. They were a grimy lot, smeared from head to toe in river sediment, muck, and motor oil. I had an uneasy feeling around them. My uneasiness turned to black anger when I saw that they were butchering a muntjac in the corner of the shelter. It was only then that I noticed the piles of snares littering the campsite. I swallowed my disgust and asked if I could examine the muntjac. I was, after all, there as a biologist, and information on muntjac from this area was scarce. No dice. They didn’t want anything to do with me. The feeling was mutual. The Lao boss, sensing the almost palpable dislike, became friendlier and more talkative. I used the opportunity to ask him about wildlife in the area. I showed him various pictures in my guidebook. When he saw the Saola drawing he lighted up. “I’ve seen that!” he exclaimed. When I pressed for details, he said that he had seen the animal two months ago near the mining camp while driving at night. What was the most distinctive feature that he remembered? His reply: long straight horns and white blotches on the face, both of which, he claimed, were very different from a serow. I was convinced, and still am, that he had seen a Saola.

We walked to the second camp , which was less crowded, and and settled in for the night. I stared at the river, marveling both at the beauty of the jungle and the destruction that was being caused by the mining. Later that night, just as we were nodding off to sleep, the Lao boss stumbled into camp. He bent down to my hammock and shook me. The smell of whisky, warm and sticky-sweet, hit me full in the face. I choked down a gag. “Haaay,” he said, shaking me again. “I ever tellya my wife’sa doctur? Vury vury reeech doctur. Vury vury bee-yoo-tiful. Gonna see her vury vury soon.” I rolled over on my side, away from him. “Haaay. Dontcha wanna hear ‘bout my bee-yoo-tiful wife?” “Oh Jesus,” I groaned. “I have to get to sleep. I have a long day ahead of me.” But he didn’t hear me. Or he didn’t care. I fell asleep to his drunken monologue. “Wife’sa doctur in Veen-tee-ane. Vury vury reech. Vury vury preeety. Gonna see her vury vury soon . . .”

First mining camp seen from above
First mining camp seen from above
Mined riverbank
Mined riverbank
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