The sweat drips down this city. We have been in Vientiane for a day and the sweat does not stop. It rolls down my forehead and into my eyes as I bike leisurely along the road that sides the river. It beads up on my neck and arms and face as we step off and into the nicely air conditioned Vietnam Consulate. It drips onto the forms as I try to fill them out without getting the thin paper wet with grime.
I am gross.
I was on the bus for the past ten hours, overnight, and before that had another, sweaty, four hour layover and yet another four hour bus ride from the islands in the south of Laos. I am gross. I can feel the parts of my skin that are rough from the rivulets of dirt that are engrained there; I can feel the dried sweat tug at my cheeks. My hair, down because I lost my last hairband in the bungalow in Don Det, feels stiff and wiry to the touch. I am so gross.
It is hard not to get gross while traveling. It is hard to stay completely clean. Even after the best of showers I get out and, soon enough, I am sweaty again. Or I am wearing clothes that I forget the last time they were washed. Or I ran out of shampoo so this time around my hair is going to get conditioned and conditioned only. And the next time too. And the next time, until I finally remember to pick up some more shampoo from one of the many mini marts that we pass every day while wandering around the cities here. The staple level of hygiene is making sure that my teeth are brushed and rinsing off my face. A good shower tends to be hard to come by, so when the hostel has really good ones you can be sure I am using it plenty.
And even when I feel clean my surroundings don’t always. I step out into the grimy street in my clean outfit and hair and my feet are immediately covered in dust and dirt. The corners of the hostel might be filthy, but it is the cleanest place in town. The mosquitos swarm in areas by the windows and in the corners, but there is nothing to do because it is just a plague of the country, and if I didn’t want to see mosquitos feeding on anything they can reach then I shouldn’t have come to this country.
Or any of these countries.
It is amazing how low my standards for bathrooms have gotten. It is amazing how low my standards for a nice, clean room have become. From Nepal, where all I could hope for was a real toilet and not a hole in the ground, and that would be considered somewhere nice. If they provide you with toilet paper, and not just a hose, that is nice. If they have a hose but not just a bucket of water, that is fancy, too. If the floor isn’t covered in water or dirt or water and dirt swirling around into mud and caking itself into the cracks in the flooring and in the corners between the walls then that is a win. A major win. Places that don’t have laminate are so nice. Places with wood floors are nicer. Somewhere where the floor is shiny is a special treat. I only saw that in Thailand.
You learn to expect much less over here. You learn to appreciate what there is. I learn that a little sweat isn’t so bad, and I feel just that much more grateful when I get off of my bike and walk into the little café and they have air conditioning. Of course the café was too expensive, trying to charge me nearly three dollars for a cup of coffee, so we left. But that little moment in the air conditioning with the clean wooden floors and the shiny countertops was nice. Just a little moment of clean.
And then I am off on my bike again, my old rusty no-gear bike, flying along the busy Vientiane streets in search of somewhere to eat. Somewhere that has coffee for myself and for Kateryna, and possibly a beer for Jordan. Somewhere that won’t overcharge us, somewhere that hopefully is a bit cool. And we fly past tuktuks and motorbikes. And we avoid the trucks and the cars as they signal into our lanes. We watch our backs while we navigate the roundabout and make it through the windy streets. The windy, yet paved, named streets.
As of now our group has solidified into six of us. Myself and Stephen, Kateryna, the Australian that we met in Chiang Mai. Lori and Paul, the Romanians that we met in the bus station, and Jordan, a Canadian who we met bowling in Luang Prabang. He was separating from some old travel buddies and decided to come travel with us for the next month or so. Six people is good. Hard sometimes, when we need to find beds for all of us at once, but always interesting and always fun.
And so as the sun starts to go down over the city and the cool breeze starts to help the country cool off from the heat of the day we go to return our bikes, and walk back to the hostel. We find Stephen, we make plans for dinner. And we start to meet new people, also hot from traveling, also imbedded with the grime and the sweat and the bug bites that come with this country.