|The Art of Lingering
© Copyright 2007 by Janice Bockelman
This narrative is based on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia that a college roommate and I decided to take several months after we graduated. With this trip it became unabashedly clear that traveling, for me, was not a phase, or a taste of something that could be satiated. In a way travel had become a form of recovery, of self, of a sense of normalcy with new boundaries and rules, of life perspective. Travel in Southeast Asia continually fascinated me in that it broke down the familiar again and again to open up a larger world.
1. Notes on transportation in Laos, or Mango-wielding Laotian girls at 2:30 in the morning
I sat on the concrete step with Emily, a package of Maria’s torn open, scattered between us. We ate them casually one by one. We had the time. There was one row left. I had never eaten the thin, oval yellow cookies before, but eating them now was familiar.
“You like bananas?” a young Laotian girl asked every five minutes, pushing between us, squatting with her basket of exotic fruit and Pringles.
Biting into a Maria, Emily mentioned a kayaking trip she had read about last night that began in Vang Vieng and headed south to the capital of Vientiane. The kayaking replaced the bus trip from one city to the other.
“You like mangos? Mangos, yum yum!” a second Laotian girl said, dangling two mangos inches from our faces.
She placed the mango in Emily’s palm and closed Emily’s fingers around it, grinning and nodding.
“That seems like a long way--” I began, as Emily caved and pulled out some kip, but my thought was interrupted.
Another small Laotian girl with chopped black hair crouched by herself in the corner where a concrete wall met a makeshift fence. Just beyond the fence was a small roadside fire surrounded by Laotians, one of which had a semi-automatic slung over his shoulder. The young girl’s food basket was next to her, empty wrappers, snacks and tamarind shells strewn about, and she was neatly shoving yellow, oval cookies one after the other into her mouth.
Emily followed my gaze. “She’s my hero,” Emily said, taking another Maria, her eyes widely approving.
Earlier that night, Emily and I hopped on a public bus to Vang Vieng, a small town in the northern province of Louangphabang in Laos. I had been reluctant to travel on Route 13 from the beginning, although no incidents had occurred recently. There simply were no other routes southbound to that region of Laos.
The bus was composed of a few scattered foreigners hailing from Belgium to Australia, both young and old, but an even wider array of local Laotian people, most notably a dodgy looking man with an AK-47. Flamboyant garlands of jasmine and orchid adorned the rear-view mirror, and miniature statues stood upright on the dash, fastened with superglue.
My official introduction to Lao defensive driving in the most mountainous region of Laos began several minutes into the drive. Every three minutes or so wild honking ensued, followed by the absolute certainty of being decimated in a head-on crash with an oncoming truck. At the last possible moment both vehicles swerved towards their respective sides, ours usually the edge of a cliff. The fading light of day was my only consolation.
I imagined an aerial view of our location, and considered what I would write in my journal if I wasn’t sliding from one side of the seat to the other, smack into Emily, every five seconds. How the bus hurtled along the winding tightrope passages, and gilded Buddhas emblazoned on billboards flitted amidst lush foliage, like lost treasure. How I was merely along for the ride, in this bus, very much not fastened with superglue of any sort.
As soon as the Dramamine–very fortunately purchased in Thailand–began to kick in, the bus lurched and slowed, pulling onto the shoulder of the road. Just outside my window, Laotian workers spoke in hushed, hurried voices. And then, a short Laotian worker clambered onto the bus and announced, “The bus, it break down,” and promptly hopped back down the steps.
We were stopped, broken down in the middle of the remote Annamite Mountain chain. I immediately recalled a flash of the article I had read on the notorious Route 13 in my guidebook last night. Attacks had been occurring on and off since 1997, usually suspected to be by the minority Hmong rebels opposed to the Lao government. The article revealed that in February this past year, an attack on a public bus traveling on Route 13 near Vang Vieng killed thirteen people, including two Western cyclists. Two months later, another bus was attacked, killing twelve and injuring thirty-one. Both times, a note was left behind, translated to read, “We have lost our nation, and are fighting to get it back.”
While other passengers piled off the bus to stretch, Emily and I refused to exit the bus. The dodgy-looking man with the AK-47 was now deep in conversation with a few of the Laotian bus workers on the side of the road. I now understood him to be our protection. But I also understood the looming foliage just outside the bus to be full of Hmong rebels, waiting to spring out and launch an attack as soon as AK-47 dropped his guard.
Just before I had left for the trip, my dad had insisted I put on my backpack so he could take some photos, “just in case we need to come find you,” he had told me. I had laughed and scoffed, but obliged and stood in front of the living room fireplace with my stuffed pack while he snapped frontal and profile shots for ten minutes. Those minutes were all I could think of now.
I noticed a burgeoning roadside fire, started by a worker. I heard laughter, it was clear we weren’t leaving any time soon. In stagnant air of the bus, I could smell myself. I hadn’t showered in a few days, somehow it seemed unimportant. After that first time, as I discovered, it became much easier. I gazed at the fire again. I wanted marshmallows. I nudged Emily. A muffled noise came from beneath her black blanket. Then silence.
I laughed, a delirious, slightly maniacal laugh…wondering if this was really happening. Emily’s travel clock said it was half past midnight, but it might as well have been three in the morning. When would we get on the road again? What time, exactly would we get into Vang Vieng? In travel, these were questions with ever-fluid answers.
Emily was buried beneath her blanket, unmoving. I shifted and re-shifted and tried to fall asleep, then stared at the bonfire still raging outside and I finally elbowed Emily hard and asked if she wanted to go see what was going on with me.
She shifted beneath the blanket and then said in a monotone voice, “Man. Rifle. Remember?”
Em emerged from beneath the blanket then, sitting up straight, pieces of her long hair shooting out at all angles.
“Want to play rummy?”
“Where do you think the hippie bus is, Em?” I said, referring to another bus at the bus stop before we’d left. Eventually, we had stepped off the bus to stretch, only to be surrounded by mango-wielding Laotian girls. As we sat on the concrete step two hours later, they were circulating among the bus passengers still.
“In Vang Vieng, ten hours ago. Obviously,” Emily said, very matter-of-fact.
It seemed days ago that we had waited for the V.I.P. bus. To begin with, the bus was an hour late to the station in Luang Prabang. We both stared at the flowered bus waiting to be filled when we arrived, second-guessing the choice to take the V.I.P. bus. But our tickets were already purchased. An old Laotian woman pointed at us with her knobby finger and told us “You girls, your bus never coming…you get on other bus.” I stared again as the flowered bus pulled out of the gravel parking lot.
We faithfully waited for our bus, as the minutes ticked by. We had nowhere to be. We pulled out our latest trade-in books, me, Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear; Emily, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, and drifted into the stories. We had paid $1 USD more for air conditioning, a TV, and comfortable, cushioned seats. We waited then, and we would wait now.
I stretched my legs out on the concrete step, there were scabs on my knees and a sprinkling of mosquito bites around my ankles. Out of the corner of my eye, I was still watching the little girl eating all of her snacks. I was wondering what else she had eaten that day.
The bus burst into flames and everyone needed off. Jostled by the push-shove-scramble in the aisle, I peeled my eyes open seemingly five minutes after climbing on the bus and closing them. It was not the roadside fire that lit the bus on fire. It was something much more promising. The sight of a new bus. It beamed at us in the black night like a huge bioluminescent squid in the middle of the Red China Sea—eagerly waiting to take us to Vang Vieng.
A few hours later, Emily and I were deposited in what actually was the middle of nowhere on a dusty dirt road. It was 5:30 in the morning. I had always wondered what this would look like. But it wasn’t as impressive as I had imagined.
We were the only ones that got off the bus. Everyone else was continuing on to Vientiane, the capital. I scoffed, mostly because I really needed off the bus. I rubbed my sore elbow and took deep breaths of the fresh air, and then I immediately wondered if we, too, should have continued on.
After heading towards the only faint light we saw, a man on a motorbike zoomed over.
“FRIENDS!! You need guesthouse? I have best guesthouse in town.” We kept walking.
“Best guesthouse just for you. You and your friend. Best deal too. Come with me.”
He coasted along with us.
“Come with me, I show you best guesthouse.”
We had made our first friend in Vang Vieng.
“Best deal, cheap, cheap. Nice room.”
We were walking in the direction he was going anyway. I didn’t know if we were in Vang Vieng. I simply didn’t care.
He guided us into town and to his Thong Phong guesthouse.
“We have room ready for you in one half-hour. You wait here.”
Our arrival set several other workers into a flurry of motion. And he gestured to the concrete benches beneath a roof. An outdoor foyer.
Emily and I slung our backpacks to the benches. We slouched against them.
The light of dawn was just beginning to etch the dark stretches of the limestone karsts out in the muted blue-grey of the sky in the distance. Emily and I lay head-to-head on our backpacks on the benches.
I finally felt some relief. It seemed we had been on a bus for the past two months, constantly fleeing. I swelled with optimism, and thought about the exploration of Vang Vieng and the Lao countryside.
Emily stared straight ahead also, and then closed her eyes.
“We’re kayaking to Vientiane.”
3. A Brief Encounter with a Well-Beaten Path, or Happy Cake
Considering the trouble we had gone through, it would have been frustrating to know we would songthaew straight out of Vang Vieng after one night. That was all it took for us.
After a refreshing nap that wiped the broke-down bus syndrome off our faces, we roused ourselves for lunch and exploration. Stepping onto a long, narrow plank to cross to the main dirt road, I was starkly disillusioned. The planks and boards and makeshift bridges linking the alleys to the main dirt road were well-worn. The businesses that lay beyond the planks fell into four categories, internet cafes, TV bars, convenience shops, and guesthouses. More guesthouses were on the way. Only the barest remnants of local culture remained a part of the town. The town was being built to suit the desires and whims of travelers moving through.
Beyond the dirt roads of Vang Vieng, limestone karsts and mountains swelled on the eastern side, while the western side was framed by the rushing Nam Song River. But all I saw was the dustiness of the town being built from the ground up.
I felt as if every aspect of their lives was now contingent on the influx and actions of people like me. It was more than disconcerting to be in a place so compromised by exactly what I was doing. I knew it hadn’t always been this way. That in such majestic surroundings, this Laotian town hadn’t always been a sideshow dependent on tourism and travelers.
Through the patchwork of dirt roads, ditches, wooden planks, and extensive construction, we discovered the open-air restaurants served mostly Western food, while blaring continuous episodes of Friends and The Simpsons from pirated DVDs. These were more aptly referred to as “TV bars.” Selecting a dinner location by the DVD that was playing seemed more popular than actually looking at the menu, since the menus were nearly identical. The peculiar listing of Happy Cake, Space Cake, Happy Pizza, Ecstasy Shake, Mushroom Tea, Ecstasy Pie was ubiquitous, making nearly every menu. Vang Vieng seemed a violent contrast to its surrounding idyllic countryside, rather than an extension of it.
After eating lunch at an organic café and skirting around the issue for most of the afternoon, we found ourselves ambling along the main street, slowing down at each TV bar, lingering longer, checking out what was playing.
And then we were inside, and a very sleek Laotian twenty-something with sharp fingernails swooped over to our triangular cushions and handed each of us a menu, gave us a once-over, and said “Can add happiness to anything on the menu.”
“Whelp.” Emily said.
“Yep.” I added, opening the small menu.
“Let’s go. I want to leave. I think we should leave.”
“We just ordered. We can’t leave. Besides we need to eat.”
“I’m freaking. Everyone is looking at us. They’re listening. I’m totally freaking.” Emily nervously rolled and unrolled her cloth napkin.
She took a sip of water and set it down too hard, nearly spilling it for the third time. Everyone at Nazim’s Indian Restaurant seemed to be staring at us, but craning my head around to peer and check, to be certain, would put me over the edge. The restaurant was pin-drop quiet, adding to the discomfort.
Emily and I discussed our options in hisses.
“We should have a beer. That’ll help. Do you want a beer. I’m having a Beerlao.”
“Everyone knows we’re freaking. They can tell. They know.” She gripped the utensils.
“Emily, have a beer. Our food will be here soon. We’ll eat, we’ll leave, and it’ll be fine.”
“Have. A. Beer,” I hissed loudly.
A half-hour later, Emily disappeared into the dusty roads of Vang Vieng, while I paced our room, manic. Sorely regretting the impulsive decision to indulge in Happy Cake.
I was helpless. Fretting. Feeling the lead weight in my stomach. Wanting to rewind to the afternoon. I wanted to go look for Emily, but the first search round hadn’t gone well. I had raced up and down the pot-holed dirt road, walking too fast for the dark night, swinging my head left and right, and left again, provoking stares. The thought of returning to the street was overwhelming. But, Emily. I stared the doorknob. I stood up. Maybe another look. The scrape of metal against the keyhole.
Emily shuffled in.
Her mauve tank top was soaked, pieces of her hair were stringy with moisture. Her eyes were faded and she didn’t look at me before she crawled into her bed.
She pulled the sheets over her head.
I sat down on the bed across from hers and grimaced and clenched and unclenched my teeth. I didn’t know what to do. This was a nightmare.
She rustled under the sheet, curling into a ball.
I felt hyper, I fumbled with her iPod and speakers and then the disarray of my wrinkled clothes. I couldn’t stop moving and each of movements felt measured and precise, but agitated. I couldn’t stop, just like Emily couldn’t part with her shroud of cotton sheets. My hand grazed a soft shirt. The grey one B.j. had given me to take along. I smelled it, and slipped over my head. It was a muted grey. I never saw anything grey without thinking of him, it was his color. He took the dismal nature of grey, and gave it intrigue and depth, thoughtfulness and brilliance. He was 9,000 miles away in law school. Emily was saying something now, but I was in his arms, in his scent, feeling very safe.
“Can you please turn that off!” Emily said loudly from beneath the sheets, “Please!”
I was blaring the Beatles’ Blackbird, when I remembered it was the Sarah McLachlan remake she loved.
The next morning, backpackers were milling about the main street and drifting in and out of the open-air lounges and TV bars. Without eating breakfast, we silently packed our belongings and took a songthaew out to the organic mulberry farm we had heard about. The casualness of Vang Vieng was even less appealing after last night.
4. Fleeing to Mr. T’s Mulberry Fields, or Mud-building
I felt a damp and sticky pellet of mud sting my arm. The Laotian workers were rolling mud balls, slapping and smoothing them into the half-built wall. The process was rhythmic, the roll was quick, the slap was forceful-quick, the smoothing slow and deliberate. Quick, quick, slow.
A few hours ago, I had gone for a walk in search of something to do while Emily took a nap. With the direction of Mr. T, the visionary and head of farm, I found a crew of Laotian workers building youth centers out of mud. The site was situated closer to the entrance of the farm, just off the wide gravel path. As soon as I was in view, one after the other they grinned and shouted, “Sabaidi! Sabaidi!” They were accustomed to visitors. I returned the greeting and approached the wall they were building, observing.
Nam, a younger worker who spoke some English, quickly took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of mud-building. He had lively brown eyes and told me his name meant water in Lao, as he demonstrated how to pack and slam the mud into the wall, and then smooth and compress it with the log.
I knelt on a plank several feet off the ground against the mud wall, and pulled another handful of the reddish mud into my palm. Plop. Another bit of mud stuck to my forearm, and then gently dropped to the ground. I looked up. Nam, who stood next to me on the plank, gave me a toothy grin from beneath his conical hat.
Nam pinched out a small piece of mud from the block on our plank and discretely rolled it into a tiny ball. He glanced over at me, held up the ball of mud to my face and then hurtled it directly at his friend across the circular wall. And then Nam swiftly bent down to gather more mud and resumed slamming packs of mud into the wall with a straight face. I began laughing at the sudden realization. This was their pastime.
Phoudinaeng Organic Farm was more than a tranquil refuge from Vang Vieng, though right now it certainly was for me. The farm was a visionary’s plan for a self-sustained village in Laos. Within five acres of land situated on the rippling Nam Song River, a small English language school, a restaurant, several guestrooms, a silkworm house, as well as a farm with mulberry trees, and banana and pineapple plants all peacefully coexisted. The owner, who liked to be called Mr. T, was a businessman from the capital of Vientiane and had bought the five acres of unwanted land several years ago. He began with a simple shelter and the silkworm house. He revitalized the previously unarable land with organic farming practices that were unheard of in the region. And then, he extended his vision to include several community projects. The construction of two village youth centers had begun ten months ago.
Now, my burst of laughter gave Nam away, and the other young Laotian he had targeted shouted something in Lao. Plops of mud rained down on us. We were bombarded from all angles, the little bits of mud stinging and staining our arms and shirts. Nam and I stooped to grab ammo and began fighting back. We ducked and fired and laughed and hollered at each other around the half-built wall, not caring about anything at all but hitting a target. And after we grew tired, a truce was called and we stepped down from behind our barricades and trickled over to a rubber tree for a water break.
That afternoon, I began to understand what was meant by the observation that time moves at a slower pace in certain regions of the world. Certainly we weren’t examples of the scientific “clock paradox,” in which time passes more slowly for rapidly moving objects, than objects at rest. Rather the passage of time slowed necessarily, to be congruous with the lifestyle and perspective of this culture. Urgency was redefined. As we sat sipping water in the shade, I learned that this was the second effort at building the youth centers. When Nam and his friend explained the first time the construction had been weak, and a monsoon had destroyed over six months’ work, there was no sense of frustration or defeat in their voices. Years ago, during a long recovery from back surgery I had realized anything was possible, if I wasn’t in a hurry and saw this to be true again and again, regardless of place. Here too, it was one afternoon at a time. The daily expectations may have been modest, but the vision from which they were created was grand.
And eventually, it didn’t matter how soon, we went back to slamming and packing mud until someone flung another tiny ball of mud. I thought, here was a place to linger. Awhile later, Nam told me, “Enough,” and stepped down from the plank. I wasn’t sure if my mud-slamming technique wasn’t up to par or it was time for me to learn the next step of mud-building. He looked at me expectantly, as if I should follow, so I supposed I wasn’t banished yet. I climbed down a bit awkwardly, stiff from standing on the plank and mud-slamming.
As we walked over to the mud pit, he took off his conical straw hat, and placed it on my head. He grinned at me, and I saw he had long blue-black hair that reached his ears. He grabbed the hose and began demonstrating how they dampen the mud before they move it to the wall for building. As the other workers trickled over, he grabbed a striped woven sheet and spread it open, shoveling huge moistened clumps of mud onto it. Two young Laotians paired off, and grinned at me in Nam’s hat as they gathered the sheet up at each end. They dashed off, hauling the mud to the wall, hurling it with a count to three in Lao, “Neung, song, saam!”
Now it was my turn with Nam. He piled it extra-high with red mud, then passed off the shovel. He grinned and nodded at me. I gather the woven fibers in my hands, and braced my feet in the slippery mud.
“Okay!” Nam said and we were off. I laughed out loud, racing across the mud with Nam, my bare feet squishing into the slippery cool earth.
Now came the dumping.
“Neung, song, saam!”
“One, two, three!” we both counted.
We tossed the mud into the burgeoning pile. The race continued until we had looming red piles and a gray-haired Laotian signaled us to stop. Then it was lunch, from 11am to 1pm, the hottest part of the day. Nam patted me on the back.
“You come…?” he said slowly, pointing to the ground.
I nodded vigorously. My hands burned and cramped from gripping the woven sheets. Traveling to this place had cracked time wide open, offering it up. I thought again, this was a place to linger.
“Yes, yes. I’ll come back. I’m going to bring a friend.”
“Friend too?” his eyes lit up.
I grinned and headed down the dirt road.
When I reached the jungle-like path that led to the string of guestrooms, I scampered down it, thinking of Emily, excited to share my discovery. Staying at the farm was going to be well worth the two-mile walk into town to check email or make calls. Last night ended up propelling us beyond Vang Vieng’s tourist facade, and into the heart of Laos and real Laotian people, each with their own story. It seemed, we would be much happier here, outside of town.
I hopped up the single cement step to our room, flung open the screen door and barged in.
She stared at me, startled and then aghast. I laughed, giddy from hunger and excitement.
She sat up from the bed, surrounded by the snagged, gauzy mosquito net, as the door banged shut behind me.
“Find something to do on the farm, Jan?” she said, hesitantly, her eyebrows raised.
With the sight of her weary face, I could tell last night still weighed heavily on her. But I was steeped in today, and realized I must have looked a bit crazed to her. My white tank top and long khaki shorts covered with splatters and smudges of red mud, along with the rest of me. I smoothed my unruly hair, forgetting my hands were caked with dry mud, and discovered lumps of mud. My hair hadn’t escaped the mud-flinging.
I grinned. “Let’s never leave.”
5. To the Unravel
In the months to come Emily and I would travel through northern and southern Vietnam, experiencing the serenity of mountainous hill tribe life and the chaos of city life, and everything that lay in between.
But sitting on Mr. T’s porch with Emily that night, I couldn’t imagine moving on. It was a characteristically humid night, and moths and insects fluttered and buzzed about. The mosquito coils smoked at our feet, smelling of warm sandalwood. We played Rummy and sipped Beerlao and discussed our plans for tomorrow, or rather, what would become our routine. We did not speak of leaving. As with any long trip, there came a point where slowing down was a necessity. It was intuitive, but it felt undeniably certain to me that we must, or we would miss much.
In the months to come, Emily and I would sit giddy and nervous in the miniature red plastic chairs at a bia hoi stand in Vietnam, waiting for the very last bus ride of the trip. We would clink glasses of fresh beer and we would play the cheers game, cheers-ing to ‘Nam and mud-building and the inauspicious tuk-tuk driver and broke-down buses.
We would toast to flossing teeth in public and our perpetually dirty feet, the mastery of vagabonding and the Southeast Asian crouch (think Eastern toilets). And then we would toast to what each of these signified, the unravel. The unsettling feeling of an end nearing would thorn out just as the traveling became smooth and calm. This travel, this movement, this simplicity had become life for me. And unraveling was an apt term for the discord, for it was the disentangling of all of the different threads the intricate act of travel implied, the departure from the comfortable and the familiar, the incredible and requisite optimism in the adaptation of a new environment; the inherent vagabonding nature; the specific behavior one adopts to rediscover normalcy within new boundaries; and the things far less tangible that one gains. The unravel was the anticipation of holding onto the intangible, while letting the physical habits of travel fade away.
And then Emily and I would cheers to snags (what we had come to term the inevitable misadventures) and the discovery of tamarind and Prickly Heat and the millions of other stories and habits and delights we had collected in the past months, and I would consider never returning at all. I became comfortable with the assaulting aspects of long-term travel. I embraced and even reveled in the simplicity of carrying everything I needed in one pack, the perpetual re-orientation of myself in the next new location, the consistent and burgeoning pressure on my comfort zone. And if those were tolerated for long enough, there was a vibrant content, a serene and most natural sense of being alive, resulting from the most organic kind of movement through space and time—travel. I would question how I could make this—extended travel—part of my life at regular intervals. And I would know the answer before the thought was complete, as with any passionate question. I would make it happen. That had been planted inside of me long ago. And I would wonder what sort of door had been opened all those summers past.
I took a deep breath and listened to nighttime Laos while Emily shuffled the deck. Beyond the flip-flap of the paper cards, and the still blackness the porch’s wooden beams framed, the farm hummed with life. Iguanas pattered, chasing each other on the ground just off the porch, cicadas and crickets droned and buzzed rising and falling in rhythm, the leaves of the mulberry trees rustled with squirrels and croaking frogs, and hornbills squawked for the last time before settling down for the night. It was alive in Laos, spirited and in-tune, and it never needed to end. Before all of this, these place names, this land, and the way it lived and breathed seemed so foreign. And now, these place names, this land, and the way it lived and breathed was so comforting.
Now, sitting on this wooden porch on a farm in northern Laos, after reveling in motion for months, I realized the beauty of lingering again.
Janice is currently a graduate student in the MFA program at University of San Francisco and a freelance writer. Prior to relocating to a foggy town in California to chase after her dreams, she lived in Ohio all of her life (and now actually misses it quite a bit). She first caught the travel bug in the small college town of Athens, Ohio and within a year-and-a-half, traveled to parts of the Yucatan Peninsula, the United Kingdom and Southeast Asia, and hasn't looked back since. Her list of places to visit is rapidly filling a scroll to long for her tiny apartment. She can't get enough of foreign transportation, used book stores, Bhaigan Bharta, and maps.
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