The quote above comes from Paolo Coelho (Monica if you are reading this I am thinking of you!) and was introduced to me via placemat at a veggie/book/volunteer-friendly cafe in Siem Reap. Three weeks later, it is in my mind again. This morning I said goodbye to my Thai host family, once again uncertain of when I will see them again. Unlike last time, however, the farewells were done one by one and were tearless. Now that I have come back, I know that returning is possible and that things don’t change that much after all. It’s a comforting thought.
Now that I have said goodbye, I can finally say a hello that I have been wanting to say for awhile, ever since my leg got stuck in the mud in an early attempt. I was on a family trip to Mukdahan, a town on the Mekong River, and I was trying to steal away in a canoe to get to Laos. Slurping mud (and lack of a paddle, not to mention police) kept me on the Thai side. But today I made it! Sabaidee, Laos!
Sabaidee in Thai means something like “I feel good.” In Lao, it means “hello.” The language of Laos is very similar to Isaan, which is the dialect in the Northeast of Thailand. The script is similar enough that even I am able to make out what signs say here. Best of all, most people understand Thai and I have a chance to practice my Isaan/Lao too. I have barely arrived and already I feel myself liking Laos.
That said, my arrival was not without, shall we say, hiccups. Everything on the Thai side was fine; Paw brought me to the bus station to catch a 10:30 am bus to Mukdahan. From there, I was able to catch a 1:30 bus to Savannakhet, Laos. I had about an hour to wait and spent it crunching the ice of a Thai iced tea (which I see they have in Laos as well). Around 1:20 I went to the bus and loaded my bag in the undercarriage myself then climbed aboard. No one checked my ticket. The bus was only half full and left five minutes early, both of which are unusual occurences in this part of the world. But the ten minute ride to the border left little time to ponder any potential explanation.
Checking out of Thailand was a tidy business, stamp stamp and you’re done. My visa expired today, so I have two matching “12 AUG 2013” stamps next to each other. After being processed, we boarded the bus again. By “we” I mean me, the previous passengers, and a bus and a half full of people that were waiting. This time the driver took our tickets without checking them and tore them up. There was a mob jostling to board the already standing-room-only bus, so I didn’t bother to ask the driver for a stub as a momento.
This ride was even shorter; just the length of the Friendship Bridge II spanning the Mekong River that serves as the border between Laos and Thailand. I stood in the back, the only obvious foreigner, enjoying the scenery and smiling at a little girl sharing seats with her grandparents. On the Laos side, the bus emptied again. People jostled, relaying Big C shopping bags (the Thai equivalent to Wal-Mart) herding children. I stood in the “foreign immigration” line, knowing that I needed to fill out an arrival card but not knowing where to find one. It was quite the wait, and when the customs officer handed me the card I had to go to the back of the line to fill it out. I was almost to the window when another officer pulled me out of line and brought me to the “visa on arrival” window, which is where I was supposed to go first but the window was closed when I first arrived. There I had to fill out another form, produce a passport photo, and hand over $35. While I was doing this, I happened to look up and see the bus leaving, with my pack in tow. It’s been a few weeks since I had a good cry, and I could feel the tears building up already. (I am still child-like in many ways, including the ease with which I can produce tears. Someday if I ever get pulled over at least I won’t have to fake being emotional.)
I told the official (in Thai) that my bag was still in the bus, but he just pointed to the next window in a sorry-I-can’t-help-you kind of way. At least he told the official at the next window about my situation so by the time I got to him at least he knew why I was crying. The tears were still coming when I had to pose for another picture. I think I tried to smile but I know I must have looked pretty pathetic. He tried to ask me where I was staying, but I just said that I didn’t know and repeated that I needed to get my bag. He let me through without hassle and a gentle smile.
Upon exiting, I met yet another officer who asked to see my paperwork. If I tried to ask me any questions I didn’t hear because a tuk tuk driver was already on me. I explained the situation yet again, and he said to take a tuk tuk to the bus station. There was only one guy there, and I couldn’t talk him down from the 200 baht price, about $7 and quadruple what I paid for the bus ticket that was supposed to take me to the bus station anyway. He had me by the proverbial balls and he knew it.
Five minutes and 200 baht later, we were at the bus station. The bus was there, but the throng had dissipated. A quick word with the attendant and… divine providence! My bag was still in the undercarriage exactly where I left it! I waved off the persistent tuk tuk driver that was now trying to take me to his friend’s hotel and went to sit for a minute in the terminal. There I dried my cheeks and had a couple words with the little girl and her grandparents that I stood by on the bus. Sweet people, tired from the travel. I will admit that I was a little sick of the travel too. For the past two weeks I have been spoiled at home, and having an incident like this had me thinking “I am sick of traveling solo.” There are perks, but today it would have been nice to have someone to talk me into laughing and to share a grumble about the tuk tuk driver.
Somewhat recovered, bag in tow, I checked the bus departure times in preparation for the next leg, wherever that may be. Satisfied, I left the station only to stand on the road, staring first left, then right, then back again, like I was watching a tennis match in slow motion. I didn’t have a map, a hotel address, a reservation, or a clue where I was even if I did have any of the preceding items. And a storm front was moving in. Ah, the romance of travel…? I went back in the station. Determined not to be swindled by a tuk tuk driver, I approached the one that seemed the least interested in picking up a fare. He was oiling some parts when I asked him (in Thai) which way to the “city.” He pointed down a road forking off an intersection, saying to turn left and go for two or three kilometers. I set off on foot, hoping to find a cheap place to stay downtown (which isn’t really much more lively than Yasothon).
There were a few guesthouses near the bus station, but I forged on hoping for digs closer to downtown. Seeing a couple of other foreigners riding in tuk tuks going the same direction gave me hope, and I knew that worst case scenario I could get a tuk tuk to take me to one of the guest houses that I already passed. Accomodation and food stalls/restaurants (which are usually close together) were sparse on the ground when it started to rain. Afternoon downpours are a daily happening in this season, lasting for an hour or so. I was lucky enough to be in front of a shop with an awning when it began, and was debating whether I should forge on with my umbrella when I looked across the street and saw a massage parlor. A ha! Screw sloshing through the rain with a heavy pack toward an unknown destination: I’m getting a massage!
The lady asked if I want an hour or two hours (in Lao). I replied something on the order of “how many hours is it going to rain?” She laughed, and we agreed on an hour and a half. That way I would be ready to move on around five, leaving me over an hour to find a place to rest my head for the night. But first I would rest my head in the parlor. For $10, I had a nice place to wait out the rain, bottomless hot tea, cool water, pleasant company with chattering Lao grandmas, and an hour and a half massage. Plus when I was ready to go the sun had come out and dried most of the puddles.
The proprietress advised me to go back the way I came if I wanted cheap accomodation. I wanted to take her advice, but I also wanted to press forward. To decide, I did what Uncle Dave Fitz taught me to do in moments of indecision: flip a coin. If you instantly don’t like what the result is, then you know how you really feel. The coin told me to go back the way I came, so I went the other way. Simple as that.
A couple blocks later, I came across some fruit stands and an old man wearing tattered clothes with only a few teeth left. He greeted me with great exuberance — in French. My French skills are limited to a seven-week crash course, which only leaves me with understanding of a few words and the ability to speak even fewer, though I am able to say “I don’t speak French.” He carried on anyway, speaking more loudly and with more gestures. From what I understand, he lived in Paris for ten years and took an airplane to get there. Whether that is true or not, his smile was genuine and he wasn’t trying to get anything from me; he just wanted to chat with a foreigner. Soon afterward a group of little girls in a storefront waved and giggled and called Sabaidee! after me. They giggled even more when I answered them back.
And then! Blessed be, I found a guesthouse. 180 baht ($6) for the night, which is as cheap as it gets here. The room has only a creaky fan and kind of smells like mildew, and there is just a bucket with a leaky hose for a shower. But for one night for one weary traveler, that is perfect. Tomorrow Iｗｉｌｌ ｌｏｏｋ ｆｏｒ ｎｉｃｅｒ ｄｉｇｓ, ｂｕｔ ｔｏｎｉｇｈｔ Ｉwas happy enough to have found a vegetarian restuarant, a Singaporean girl advising me to head to Pakse and the Four Thousand Islands in the south before heading to norther Laos, and this Internet cafe. I ｗａｎｔ ｎｏｔｈｉｎｇ ｍｏｒｅ ｆｒｏｍ ｌｉｆｅ ｎｏｗ, ｅｘｃｅｐｔ ｆｏｒ ｍａｙｂｅ ａ ｂｏｔｔｌｅ ｏｆ ｗａｔｅｒ ａｎｄ ｓｏｍｅ ｓｏｒｔ ｏｆ ｆｒｕｉｔｙ ｅｖｅｎｉｎｇ ｓｎａｃｋ.