The sun shone brightly overhead as we made our way away from our bungalow in Nong Kiao and onto the dirt track. Above us the mountains hissed with the sound of jungle heat, while below us the swollen river whispered and whooshed around the rocks and bushes that lined the banks. As we walked away from the van our SPOT tracker silently went haywire, sending a rogue message into space where it was reflected by a satellite and passed back to Earth. Seconds later the message was relayed through a server and dispersed to a list of emergency contacts. The message was abrupt, ominous.
Brad and Sheena need help. This message was sent because they pressed the “SOS” button on their GPS tracker.
Device Name: Drive Nacho Drive
Within minutes a response had arrived in our email inbox back at the bungalow. It was from Sheena’s father—one of our emergency contacts.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
We walked on, none the wiser, into the wilderness. Cicadas buzzed in the trees while a dugout canoe silently floated past on the Nam Ou.
The dirt track rose and fell as it passed over ridges and washes extending like fingers from the mountain to touch the ribbon of water. The jungle thicket to our right soon dissipated, replaced by bare hillsides planted with corn and beans and rice paddies. Simple thatched huts dotted the bare hills, providing a place for farmers to escape the tormenting sun. To our left the river carried on, opaque with suspended mud that would eventually mix into the flow of the Mekong.
The S.O.S. message was transmitted six times in a row, one minute apart, before the signal went silent. Having heard nothing else from us after the S.O.S., Sheena’s dad immediately sprung into action. It was early morning in Arizona when he found himself launching an international rescue mission. He first called my mom to bring her up to speed, and then tried to contact SPOT for guidance. After much searching, he eventually found a phone number for the company, but no human existed on the other end—only a robot slinging cheerful automated messages repeating mantras of how great the SPOT tracker is.
Unable to speak to a human, he gave up and decided to try the State Department—a place widely rumored to employ actual humans. He also posted the body of our S.O.S. message to our Facebook page to get the word out.
After an hour of walking we saw the first signs of civilization. A dilapidated hut obscured by dense trees, a fence concealing a garden and a shed, a simple schoolhouse. We rounded a corner onto a straight section of road where we could make out the figures of several small children in the track. It didn’t take long for them to notice us; only a handful of people would pass through the village all day. Suddenly the children transformed into wild animals. Their legs were sprinting towards us before their bodies knew what was happening. Sheena and I stopped in our tracks, uncertain. What the…?
In the final few meters before they arrived they all simultaneously threw their hands out, palms turned skyward. They gasped for air and panted wildly, but their eyes were big and hopeful and full of excitement, their hands unwavering.
“Hello pen! Hello pen!” they shouted. Pen? We hesitated, and one of the little girls mimicked writing on the palm of her hand. “Hello PEN!” she shouted, smiling and excited. We showed them that we didn’t have any pens, or anything useful for that matter. Unable to comprehend why foreigners would be walking in the wilderness without pens, a few of them persisted.
Finally they realized that we must be very unlucky foreigners, and were indeed traveling without pens. They stood in front of us, hands behind their backs. The girls swayed back and forth looking at their feet, tracing out shapes in the dust with their bare toes. A small boy stood in the back of the group with his head cocked to one side. He must have been wondering how we could have been so foolish to have left home without any pens.
Suddenly one girl broke rank and ran into the weeds at the side of the dirt track, and the rest followed. They frantically grabbed at the weeds, and a minute later emerged with handfuls of flowers. They consolidated them into a bouquet and the girl in charge handed them to Sheena with a shy smile. The poor foreigners. At least now they have some flowers.
The children fell in step behind us, matching our strides while giggling and smiling. After a few minutes they stopped in the road and waved goodbye to us, yelling over one another the parting chant of the milk-face:
“Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”
It didn’t take long to get a representative from the US State Department on the phone. Within minutes Sheena’s dad had been patched through to the US Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The representative took down the coordinates and then typed them into his computer.
“They’re way up in the mountains in a place called Nong Kiao,” the man said, “we don’t have anybody up there.” He explained that our last known location was in a tiny village way off the grid, and that the closest police station was nearly a day’s drive away over bad roads. He told Sheena’s dad to hang tight, and that he would mount a search and rescue mission from within Laos.
We made our way down the exposed dirt track under the heat-lamp sun that left patches of dry salt on our shirts. Around a bend in the road a man rested in the shade of a rubber tree next to a makeshift wooden shelter that housed a pile of freshly picked pineapples. We placed our order and the man picked up his machete and cut off several enormous leaves from a nearby tree. He used one leaf to clean off the blade of his machete, and then placed the rest on the ground to form a clean work surface. He set the pineapple on the leaf mat and proceeded to slice it into edible chunks before wrapping one leaf into a to-go container. We paid him the equivalent of twenty five cents and continued on our way, fresh pineapple juice dripping from our leafy satchel.
A short while later we ducked into a grove of lime trees and found our way down to a shady place where a tree had fallen on the river bank. We found the flat parts of the downed tree where it was most comfortable to sit, retrieved the tuna and crackers from the pack, and drained the oil from the tuna can into a gopher hole. A small team of ants crawled onto my shoe, over my toes, and down the other side into the powdery dust. In the river a dugout canoe with a small outboard motor slowly worked its way upstream. The canoe slowed as it came to a narrowing in the river where the water velocity increased, and then regained its speed and disappeared around a river bend.
It was nearly midday when the representative from the State Department in Vientiane started making calls. He called every police station in the capital to sound the alarm about the American couple in the mountains who had dropped off the radar after sounding an S.O.S. alarm. He was a diligent man, and he knew that people were counting on him to bring the couple back safely. And he might have launched a successful rescue party if Laotian police were the hard working type. But as it turned out the State Department representative was unable to locate a single on-duty police officer in the entire capital city. By late afternoon the effort had gone nowhere.
When we passed the pineapple man on our way back he was chatting with a tiny dirty man with a backpack. The pineapple man waved at us and then said something to the tiny man and pointed our way. The tiny man grinned a big toothy grin and then trotted over and began walking with us.
“Mugugullubub boggily rai chap moo gulai!” the man said. I noticed that his eyes were a little glazed over.
I spoke clearly and slowly in hopes that it would help the man understand my language, which he clearly didn’t speak. “We do not speak Lao. We speak English. I do not understand what you are saying.”
“Grubai! Ha! Wulai buggarudai cruap gai!” No language barrier would stand in this man’s way.
“I am sorry,” I continued, even more slowly than the first time, “I do not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.”
“Ha! Willynu rug moo kwai bloo roomai!” He spoke quickly with grand gestures of hand and body as if retelling a very exciting story. He continued on for what seemed like ages, occasionally glancing my way for a reaction, to which I would respond with droopy eyebrows, or a smile, or with raised eyebrows depending on the reaction that I guessed his story warranted based on his facial expression. Occasionally I interrupted him mid-sentence.
“Sir!” I would interject, “I have no idea what you’re saying!”
The tiny man didn’t care. Whatever he was on prohibited him from realizing that the words coming out of my mouth were of a different language than the words coming from his, so he filled the minutes with nonstop jibber jabber. I decided the man just needed someone to talk to, so I joined the game.
“Kuan ton prai muglai ekkamai loo boo crap-”
“Wait a minute! Did you say airplane? I thought you might have said-”
“Doo da bai kumai-”
“Excuse me, but your airplane story reminded me of a story of my own. Do you know how these bamboo trees came to be here? Well let me tell you sir, and please make yourself comfortable, for my tale is a long one. The length of my story will indeed remind you of times in your life when you wished that things had gone differently. Like the time-”
“Gooba dai prai-”
“Tanning leather? Well why didn’t you just say so! The first step to tanning leather is to obtain a hide. Now this is the tricky part, for animals with suitable hides for tanning are often quite mean and hard to kill…”
The kilometers ticked by in this manner—him speaking in gibberish, and me interrupting him to tell my own meandering made up stories—until we reached the village of the children, at which time the tiny stoned man got distracted and stopped walking long enough for us to make our escape. A half an hour later he passed us by on the back of someone’s motor scooter. As he passed he tried finishing his story.
“Goo moo bannnnnntaaaaaiiiii…”
When we got back to Nong Kiao it was late and we were exhausted from the relentless sun. We spied our tiny friend sitting in a ditch beside the bridge over the Nam Ou, so we walked to a small kiosk and bought him a lemon soda. We delivered the soda to the man (he didn’t remember who we were and was very confused at his great fortune) and made our way back to our bungalow. After showering I opened the computer to check my email.
What I found upon connecting to the outside world was nothing short of a Mongolian clusterf@#&.
It didn’t take long to suspect the SPOT tracker as the cause of this mess, and a quick inspection of the device verified our suspicions. The plastic safety cover protecting the S.O.S. button was still firmly in place, ruling out an accident on our part. The green message light, which should have stopped blinking hours before, was still blinking, and I was unable to power off the device without removing the batteries. I made several quick emails to family and posted on our Facebook page that we were fine. First I called Sheena’s dad.
“I’m glad to hear from you.” It was the understatement of the century. He sounded pretty flustered, and I explained what had happened. “You should call your mom,” he said. I hung up the phone and rung my mom on Skype.
“OH MY GOD, ARE YOU OKAY!?” She was audibly upset, to put it mildly. “Oh my GOD I’m so glad you’re okay! My sister is here and she’s been trying to keep me calm…”
I explained that our SPOT tracker had malfunctioned, and that we found this whole affair rather surprising. She finally calmed down and suggested that I write a strongly worded letter to SPOT. Sheena’s dad was two steps ahead of us, and wrote a detailed incident report with suggestions about how to improve their customer support for people in these situations in the future. Four days later a robot replied to his email, verifying that, in fact, no humans actually work at SPOT.