How should I describe this place to you, a friend, family, a stranger? How should I describe the run down buildings, the vendors selling the same things, the broiler chickens rustling and crying in their cages, ready for selling. The dusty streets, the chipped tarmac running through the middle? How do I describe the gas being pumped into old liter sized plastic beer bottles to sell for people’s motorbikes. The smell of dust before the rainy season descends. The winds that pull in just as the sun is getting a bit too overwhelming in the long afternoon.
What can I say, but travel. See the streets and the vendors and the dust. See all of the dust, different each place you go. Go anywhere. Go everywhere. Go different places so that you can start to say that it felt a bit like those rural towns in Vietnam at times, and then realize how little you really know about these places that you have gone. And how much more there is to see. Then tell yourself that someday you will go back.
Travel so you can see your life through new eyes. So you can see your world in a new way. Travel so you can meet others who have traveled too. Who have traveled more. Who can teach you. Who you can teach, too.
Travel so you can hear the songs in the different languages. In Hindi and Swahili and Bemba and Lunda. So you can ride the crowded buses pushed in with the mothers holding screaming babies and farmers and sacks full of things that will be for sale in the next town, and truly appreciate your seat on your crappy Greyhound bus when you go home.
Go where you are scared to go. Where you are uncomfortable. Stay until the discomfort subsides or until you find peace within it. Take that strength back with you when you return home.
Travel so you can meet people. So you can see the little girl in fourth grade in her hand me down dress and ripped rubber shoes who says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Hope that she reaches that goal. So you can talk to the thirty five year old man in his school uniform, back learning after so many years so that he can retake his secondary school exams and go back to be a nurse in the village where he has lived his entire life. Talk to them. Eat with them. Wonder about their lives. Wonder about your own life. Keep traveling.
Travel so you can learn. Travel so you can realize how much there is to learn. How much you have to learn. Pledge to try.
Go where you can’t communicate. Where there are no common words. Where it is imperative that you simply make it up. Learn to take it slowly. Then even slower. Learn to be patient with things you don’t know. Learn to make common ground. Learn to make yourself understood. Learn to understand.
Wake up in a new country, in a new city, in a new life. Never get tired of that feeling, of that feeling of curiosity and amazement that pulls you out into the day. Travel without plans, without goals or destination. Travel for the thrill, for the wonder, for the adventure, for the excitement of it all.
Travel so you can see all the different sunsets and star filled skies. Wonder at them. Realize how amazing it is that each one of those sunsets and each one of those star filled skies are the same. No matter where you go, or how things change those skies will always stay the same.
I am sitting in my hut right now, on my bed under the mosquito net with my pillow and sleeping bag between my back and the cold concrete wall. It is almost like a couch, and it is the most comfortable place in the tiny 5×8 foot hut. It is the first time I have gotten to use my computer in over a month, which in itself is so nice. I should be studying for Saturday’s language exam, but instead I am here, writing this.
The full moon has passed, just a few days ago, and the sky is pitch black again. The type of black where I start to worry about getting lost while leaving my hut to brush my teeth each night. Remember how sometimes the sky gets a bit lighter at night and you think it’s because your eyes are starting to adjust better to the dark, but in reality it’s just because the bright light of the full moon is lighting up the night? Yeah. But the sky is pitch black again, and when you go outside you can see all the stars imaginable, and the Milky Way, too. It really is a site to see.
Desmond Junior and Kelvin and Victor and Karen are outside, sitting around the brazier. Esnet, your host bamaama is shouting something at them in Nyanja. They respond lazily.
I want you to know how proud of you I am. I want you to know how amazing it is, what you are doing each day. I want you to know that there truly are times when I don’t think that I will make it, and then I think of you, far off in the future, doing it all. And doing it well. I want to remind you to be brave.
The time is slowly speeding up here, and right now I think that is a good thing. Because June felt like it took months to go by, and I don’t want every month to feel that way. But July feels just a bit better and August will feel even more so, I am sure.
I still feel like I am living in a different dimension or universe from whatever is happening at home. Does that feeling ever go away? Do you ever get used to the discord between your life and your friends’ lives?
I don’t know if you think the time is going too slow or too fast, but whatever it is, just know that time is passing as it should. That sometimes when it’s going too slowly that just means you are really learning a lot from where you are and what you are doing. Sometimes when it seems like time isn’t passing at all you just need to get away with a cup of coffee and a book. Fall into another world while reading, and watch the time slowly start to speed back to normal.
I promise: it works every time.
Sometimes when it seems like time is passing too quickly and it doesn’t seem like you have enough time to do everything you need, just remember how far you have come. How slowly it went at the beginning. How you craved for it to speed up. Because right now it is speeding up so slowly, and there is so much yet to come. Remember that sometimes time flying by is good. It means you are really doing what you came here to do. It means you are working hard and learning a lot. And teaching a lot, too.
It will get hard, it will get easier. I don’t know that, but I do, at the same time. Because that is the way it always is. Even when it is so inexplicably hard, just know it will always get better.
Sometimes there will be days where the most work you can do is to light the brazier and cook yourself lunch. Don’t worry: that is your accomplishment for that day. Sometimes there will be so much to do you will think you can’t do it all. You can. You always can. Whether it be house chores or work tasks. Sit down, make a list, start tackling the list one by one.
Go for a run. Paint something. Draw a picture for a friend and send it in a bush note down to another village. Play your ukulele.
Go to the prov house. See people. Talk. Laugh. Listen to music. Plan a trip somewhere. Enjoy this. Enjoy it all.
Know you are doing an amazing job, whatever you are doing and wherever you are.
We fly down roads lined in trees and bushes and fences. We fly down roads paved and unpaved and in the middle of being paved again. We ride on buses and trains and tuktuks, little things chugging along the street and we watch the people pass us on their bikes and their cars. We ride through the countries, one after the other, India then Thailand then Laos. We watch as the scenery changes, as the food changes as the huts change from one place to the next.
The people look different. The roads feel different. We watch as they become more and more put together. We watch as the potholes disappear. We watch as the little shacks on the side of the road gain walls and windows and cars in their driveways. We watch as they space apart further and further so that each one gains its own piece of land and its own quiet space.
We watch as the countries change. As the countries change from jungles to flatlands to farms. From mountains to hills to rivers. We watch as they each gain their own little signature. As they all tell their own story.
We watch from buses, large and small. We watch from trains. We watch in the daytime and in the night, changing places, cities, countries all the time. We sit with our noses pressed against glass windows, necks craned towards the back. We drink it in. We want to drink it all in. We want these places in between to change us as much as the places we finally settle. As much as the cities and towns in which we stay. This is our way of seeing the world. We drive it, we watch it all the time.
We watch as the houses gain stilts to stand on, as the builders use concrete instead of mud. We watch as the farms flow from flowers to wheat to rice paddies spread over mountains then fields then nestle themselves back into the little flat beds between the hills that rise quietly here, so quietly.
Not loudly. Not like the jagged snow covered things that command a country. Not like the winding roads that command you go slow, that demand you watch out. Not like the little dirt roads passing for a highway, the one laned things that meekly cut a path from here to the next.
We notice when these things change. When there stops being a person everywhere we look. We notice that there are fewer people, people working, people sitting. We watch as the piles of trash shrink and go away, as the yards become swept and dignified, as the concrete builds itself up and fails to be crumbling away. We see the buildings retain their newness, we see the buildings stand up straight. We see the buildings stay buildings and not merely pieces of tarp sewn together. We see them stand proudly. We see them thrive.
Nepal, India, Thailand, now onto Laos. A new country, a new one to see. There are such brilliant contrasts in these places, such wonderful things to see. There are the constant changes in the land, in the trees and rivers and mountains. There are the new buildings, replacing the old and decrepit ones of the countries before. There are the roads, the flat smooth roads that connect one city to the next, that connect an entire country and make it whole. And there is the feeling in each country. The distinct feeling that accompanies each and every one. The air and the people and the breeze. They carry such different things. Here it is quiet. Quiet and gentle and sweet. Balmy and easy going. What will the next country bring? How will it change, how will it stand out?
Nepal is the mountains, India is the people. The people everywhere you turn. Thailand is the sweet sweet smell of the balmy breeze and the jungle rising quietly from the plains. Little things that define them in my mind. Little things that make them each unique and what they are.
* * *
We arrive in Laos by way of a Friendship Bridge and eight separate vehicles. We take the tuktuk from our hostel in Chiang Mai to the bus station and then we wait. At nine am we take the bus from Chiang Rai, and twenty minutes after we have gotten off of that we are on another bus, this time from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. Where the bridge is, where the department of immigration is. It is a quick drive to the water’s edge, immigration on the Thai side and then we take yet another bus across the bridge to Laos. So easy! And once we are there there are forms to be filled out, money to be paid (in American dollars, of course, what they always want for the visas), and then a group van to the bus station in Laos, at Hua Xai.
The bus leaves once a day from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang. Sometimes at 5pm, sometimes at 6pm, but once a day. And if you don’t make it onto the bus? Then you have to stay in the little town for another day.
We almost didn’t make it onto the bus.
It was me and Stephen and our new Australian friend, Kateryna. We met Kateryna in Chiang Mai and she needed to go to Laos, so here we were with another travel buddy!
We made it to the ticket counter just as two Romanians, Paul and Lorie, finished buying their tickets. We are out of luck, she says, there is nowhere to sit, she says. We beg her: we say, we will sit on the roof! We say, we will sit below, with the bags! She says no, no, there are no seats. We say, we will sit in the aisle! We are completely fine with sitting on the floor! It will be the same price, though, she says, and we say, fine. All we want is to be on that bus. All we want is to, finally, get to Luang Prabang.
And with that we are handed our tickets to the bus. To the aisle of the bus. When we get on she hands us three broken plastic chairs and wishes us “good luck”. We are going to need it.
The bus from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang is 14.5 hours long. It flies over night through the country and gets into the city in the morning, so it is imperative that we get some sleep. Not happening in the little chairs. Every time the bus moves too far to one side or the other the chair feels like it is going to either fall over onto Kateryna or break entirely. Every time I start to doze off with my head on the seat next to me the bus jerks and I nearly fall over. So at the next stop I transfer to the floor. Not so much better, because now every time the bus jerks, instead of being thrown around in my chair I am thrown around in the aisle of the bus, my limbs playing a sort of pin-ball with the sides of the aisles and peoples limbs which are sprawled out in the middle in the middle of their sleep. It is cold. It is sore. It is tiring to be thrown around constantly. It is not comfortable, and we have only been on the bus for six hours at this point.
Eventually enough people get off of the bus that we can get seats! This feels like heaven, and we finally manage to scrounge a few shreds of sleep from what is left of the ride.
We land in Luang Prabang in the morning, with the dew still weighing heavy on the city and sleep on our eyes. All we want are beds in a hostel that wont break the bank.
So, we head out. The three of us, Paul and Lorie, too, and another boy, Ali. We make our way into town, we do our research, we walk back and forth between two different hostels in different parts of town at least three times before finding somewhere that has six beds for us. And, finally, we can fall asleep. Heads on soft pillows now instead of on duffel bags and bags of rice, we fall asleep.
There’s something so warm and wonderful about meeting new people while traveling. About making new friends. This tie that binds you to another person, another spirit. Just the little fact: that I am far from home, and so are you. There are the little things, like being able to share travel tips, take advice on where to go next, what to do, what beers to buy where.
And then there are the bigger things: where will we end up? Will we ever even meet again? And if we do, indeed, meet again, will it be the same? Would we be sitting here, together, if we had met anywhere but this dusty, foreign land?
At the table there are so many people. Three tables have been pushed together, and yet they still overflow. Beers and meals and pots of tea fight each other for space. iPads are taken out to look at what someone looked like before he was dared to grow his travel beard.
Everyone always looks so much more different in pictures where they are home, clean, and in clothes not caked in dust and travel and signs of wear.
A Dane teaching a Brazilian kid how to speak a new language, people laughing at little jokes in big corners, and a conversation shouted at the waiter who is always here when we are always here and knows us all by name by now. And games. Games of cards, on screens, word play riddles that stump the whole table for hours on end.
We have Tore and Mikkel from Denmark, Sean and Loch from America and Moksha (Jaja) from the Philippines. Joey from New Zealand, Hannah the Aussie, Maria is from Denmark, too, and Mireia is from Spain. Ivan from Brazil, Julian from Belgium, Jasmin from Germany, Happy from Nepal, and me.
It becomes so easy when you find others in the same space that you have become so content with simply being in. An old city becomes new again, old experiences become real again. It becomes about something more than simply you and the city. About more than just you trying to navigate, to tease the knots out of this little wound up, tied up city. More than the sleepless nights when you start to wonder where you are, why you are here, and what are you really getting out of it. Because then you wake up in the morning and you remember the faces and the streets and the pieces of the world that you are picking up all along the way as you stumble through the cities, the countries, the new voices and languages and sounds.
And then, like the rules of this thing dictate and require, they leave. They dissipate, off to new countries, new cities, new cafes to sit in with pots of tea and beers and games and languages spread from one end of the table to the other.
And you can ask yourself when you will ever meet again. And you can say that you miss it, but to say that is not being true to the essence of the thing. That these friends, these others that we meet wandering the trails too, are that. Those that we meet. And only that. They are those that we share something with, but just for a short time. Because that is what makes them special. That is what makes it all unique.
And if fate brings us together again, then that is what fate has planned. And then that city, that country, that corner tucked back in the middle of everything will light up, too, with our meeting.
But in the meantime we take these new friends, these new people and faces, and we appreciate them for what they are. A spot in the middle of the oh-so-foreign city. A new face. A newly familiar face. A companion for sleepless nights and empty mornings, busy afternoons and scary evenings where we do not know really where the future brings us.
And until then, we say simply hello and we say simply goodbye.