My favorite book when I was a kid was my children’s world atlas. (Some things never change, right?)
I loved pouring over the maps, reading tongue-twistery country names and running my finger along their crinkly borders. I was especially enamored with land-locked places. Chad, The Dakotas, Laos. They have little in common other than my inexplicable childhood fascination with their mere existence away from a major body of water.
Twenty-something years later when I finally made it to Laos I expected my inner child to show a little more appreciation.
I thought she’d want to head north for some adventuring, trek to a hill tribe, float down a jungle-flanked river, ride an elephant, maybe run her feet along those crinkly-edged borders and dip them into the Mekong. That’s what everyone else was doing in Laos, anyway.
Then my ethics got in the way, and my heart.
I didn’t want to sit on the back of a mighty beast with a broken spirit. I didn’t like the human safari feel of the hill tribe trekking advertisements. I suddenly felt uncomfortable bringing my white face into yet another little-visited corner of the globe (something my inner adventurer has always struggled with). And wasn’t anyone else worried about the poisonous snakes in the river in Vang Vieng?
But I especially didn’t want to fall in love and have to leave.
My time in each new place has felt like a full-circle relationship, accelerated and condensed into the time on hand. There is the awkward getting to know you phase, the joyful exploration phase, the getting comfortable and ambivalent phase, sometimes the rekindling of passion phase, and always the inevitable final goodbye. Sometimes I’ve cried. Sometimes I’ve been ready. But each time it’s been hard.
So instead of trying to get to first base with Laos, I gave her the cold shoulder. I got an extended visa to Thailand from the embassy in Vientiane and hid away drinking iced mochas at a popular expat café.
I did manage to have a little flirt… eat some street food, explore a few gold-capped temples, rock out to a Laotian cover band (they did a great rendition of the Cranberries’ Dream), and knock back a few beers with the Minister of Public Health*–hey, you never know what’ll happen on the road–but that was the four-day extent of it. Oh, and that run-in with the mysterious Dutchman.
Mostly I wandered the streets under Laos’s meltingly hot February sun, wondering where my heart was leading me next, wondering what the point of this little travel exercise was, wondering if I was cut out for this kind of life or if I should maybe just pack up and go home already.
*Actual title changed to protect the innocent, but he was the minister of something or other governmental.