Traditional--yet battered from years of warfare-- the landlocked (former) Kingdom of Laos (now a People's Democratic Republic) is a beautiful land of stark contrasts, dancing uncontrollably between the calmness of a gentle culture and the violent memories of a turbulent history.
Laos was the highlight of my first trip to Southeast Asia.
It was like being in a country where the calendars were set a century back, and the people stood behind crackled and fading shop-house windows, gazing out at a monster world moving slowly but inevitably towards their dusty doorsteps.
To my young eyes, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos was a scarred beauty of old Southeast Asia.
Saffron Robes and Shaved Heads
When I returned home and shared the pictures of Laos with my friends, many of them believed that the local people in my photo's were dressed up for show.
They were surprised to hear of such a traditional lifestyle, so unlike our 't-shirt generation' style, that exists in this far flung corner of our world.
Theravada Buddhism is still strong, and it touches the minds and lives of the majority of Lao.
You can see it in the early morning rituals of the novice monks when they don their saffron robes and walk single file down quiet sidestreets, floating through the morning mists, heads lowered, baskets held out towards the willing laymen knelt before them, lined up along the sidewalk.
You can hear it in their three day long festivals where the local Wats will be crawling with clergy and commoners, banging the drums to a rhythmic beat, pounding nonstop for the entire weekend.
No matter where you are or what you are doing, the vibe of this country is deeply Buddhist.
You could come to Laos to taste the exotic food in Luang Phabang or to eat banana pancakes in Vang Vieng.
You could spend your time trekking into forgotten villages, learning of the unique cultures quietly tucked away along the borders of Yunnan, China or simply lie face up on a lazy riverboat meandering its way down the river Mekong, you can journey here to lose yourself or trek here to recapture your spirit or you could leave here and never return.
But just know that whatever you choose to do here is sure to stop your wristwatch and still your mind.
A Well Kept Secret
I feel almost guilty writing up this reticent nation. And yet, shy as it is, one cannot help but praise its attributes.
Sure, just as any other country in this world, Laos has its share of corruption and greed... but to sum up my impressions, it is a lovely country content with its anonymity yet eager to develop its future.
Keep in mind, however, that this is just one man's impression of a well-kept secret, you of course, will have a completely different experience here.
Some people just have a knack for making new friends, while the rest of us like to take our time. How do you react when it's time to make new friends in a new place?
I buzzed my head with a #4... or, to be exact, Brian did it for me.
We were sitting around in Nick's living room, and he asked me if I wanted to buzz my head. When I said "maybe," and the girls said "no," I immediately replied with a quick stripping off of my shirt and a shaving of my head.
That evening I went home... or, to be exact, to the Ostrander's home (of which I am sitting for the next three weeks), and I closed the night with a thought on cats.
My mind is jogged by one named Savannah, who is desperate for human affection intent on pawing me with her claws and rubbing me without restraint as I ponder life's questions while draining my bladder.
My thought is as follows...
Cats are like me in that they put on a facade of aloof-ness, purring around with an air of independence, self assured and free from want. But if you leave them for a few than they'll be all over you. Affection starved and baring all, they have no problem wearing their emotions on their fur, throwing themselves upon you as if they were expected to.
The catch is that, when you give a cat what he wants, that is personal affection, then he's back to being self reliant and un-needy.
And it's because of this that I am like cats.
And yet I've reasoned out a line of thought to get past my catlike qualities. This was brought on by a series of several nights, of which I am about to relate.
I left the cats at home a night back when my family was on island for the Labor Day weekend and they camped down at Hulopoe Bay. I worked that night, and I didn't get off until 11.
But as late as it was, I still went. I caught a ride down with Nick and Brilei, Leslie rode with Feline to keep her company. Feline wore a silly cap which made her look like a french mime.
When we got down to the beach campsite, however late that was, Melanie, Simon and Cressentia were still up talking about sign language, Kat and Kaimana were both ready for bed, and the haole boy Keith was trying to get Kaimana to sleep.
The suburban was gone, they had driven to Keomoku, the other side of the island, to harvest midnight shells, which meant that I was stuck wearing my p.j.'s and nothing to swim with.
I informed a certain Brian that I would not be joining him in a midnight swim, but happily enough, Simon was prepared, and the two went off to swim with the sharks.
A few nights previous (while at the very same campsite), I had been moody and aloof. Quiet and anti social, I distanced myself from the 'group' all night, content on wallowing in my feelings of loneliness.
At the time, my mind was consumed with memories and thoughts about my friends that I had just left behind in New York.
I remembered how we would bonfire at the 'Bay of the Most Beautiful Sunsets' and of how, once a year, we would bundle up on the sand and we'd watch the fireworks from across the Bay.
And the night felt quiet and empty without them... it seemed as if every falling star reminded me of how slowly by slowly they were all falling away from me.
The group tried their finest to get me to wrestle with them, yet I felt as if my real friends weren't with me on that almost perfect evening. I fell asleep that night struggling to hold on to whatever memories I could... but the sand was hard, the ocean was loud, and the stars seemed harsh and blinding.
The next morning was pitiful.
I crawled into the shade while everyone else played in the water. I tried so hard to want to get up and join them, but my mind forced myself to sleep in the midday heat.
When I got up and found that they had left, I felt the emptiness inside of me deepen.
The heat was making me dizzy. The flies were driving me irritable, and I felt like I was going insane. Why did I need anyone?
And then I remembered how, a couple days prior, I had jumped out of bed at the sound of the phone ringing. The cats had been all over me that morning, and I had closed the door to close them out.
When I answered the phone, it was hungry Brian looking for a friend to lunch with.
I looked at the time on the microwave, and it read 11:20. "Sure," I said. "I'll meet you in 30." I hung up the phone and telephoned Ash. "Sure," she said. "I'll pick you up in 25."
We got to The Cafe, Ashley and I, a half an hour later, and Brian was a quarter to done. So she called up her daddy and Richard came over, then Brian left us alone.
Well Richard ate nothing and I ate tempura, and Ashley had something like spam. When Leslie came by, we asked her to sit, then Richard decided to leave.
Before he could leave, tho, Chrissy stopped by, and she ordered her lunch, but to go. Then she sat at our table, and asked Dick "How you doing?" And he ended up staying a bit longer.
By the time we were finished, Lesleigh and Rachel had come and the kids were all hungry for lunch. So she got them both lunches to go in a baggy, and then we all left with full bellies.
I realized then that friends come in various packages.
Some of them are canned pretty darn good, well preserved and everlasting... good for eternity, hardy and weathered.
They may be like a favorite trinket you place on a shelf, one that you can take down and show off, or admire when everything else seems so imperfect.
Or a friend could be a dusty photo you return to whenever you feel like the memories are slipping away.
Some friends are momentary, a quick fix like a double espresso on a drabby day.
And some are permanent figures, like the firm foundation of a standing fixture. Whatever a friend is, they're there for your well being. And you are there for theirs.
So back to the night when I got off of work at 11, and went down to the beach with Nick, Brilei, Leslie and Fe the french mime... it was then that I made up my mind to try and be happy with all that I had.
It shouldn't matter that my friends in New York were all working together at the annual Hampton Classic horse show and I wasn't. Because I'm here now, lying in the sand with a group of new friends, pretty and polished and ready to play, each of them with their own personality quirks.
"You wanna wrestle?" they asked me, and again I said, "No."
But this time it wasn't because I didn't want to be there with them. The truth was that I was there and that they loved me for who I was, just like friends should.
They too had friends they were missing. They had lives outside of what I knew about them. But they chose to be there with me, and they smiled at me, even when I turned them down on their offer for a wrestling match.
So I sprawled out in the sand with Scott's radio on 'Oldies 104.7', and I smiled as I remembered how Nick flipped Brian with one hand while eating a cookie with the other.
Leslie lay there on her cot with her ever ready listening ears.
Kat said goodnight as she tucked herself into bed next to Sammy. And the lantern was bright as it shone down on Keith and Fe playing trumps with Brilei and Brian.
I fell asleep in the sand again that night... but this time it wasn't as hard as it was a few nights prior. The ocean rolled quietly as I shut my eyes, and the stars were soft and unassuming.
One of the most exciting things about moving to a new place is discovering all those little every day spots.
You know, like where you'll pretty much always end up eating whenever you feel too lazy to muster up any motivation to explore anywhere else, or like where you need to go to do your laundry, or shop for goods, or what's the fastest or most convenient route to the subway station.
All of these simple little first timers will get old after a while. These are things that you will eventually find yourself doing day in and day out. So take that exciting first time feeling that you get the first few times that you do it and try to remember how exciting it was for you when first discovered it!
When arriving at a new place, two of the first hurdles you must overcome are language barriers and jet lag, For the first few days it feels as if your body is thrown off track, what's night is day and what's day is night. And forget about everything you thought you'd learned about Mandarin before you got here, you don't understand a single thing that they're saying!
I wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of growling coming from the streets below. I rub my eyes, sit up in bed and look out the window, peering eleven floors down, to see a pack of wild dogs roaming the streets, looking for a fight.
Oh, the joys of Kaohsiung, I think to myself.
I contemplate the possibility of throwing something at the snarling pack, but I realize that eleven floors up is a long way down, and who knows where a random object might land, like on the upturned face of one unsuspecting local. The last thing I need is my own pack of angry Taiwanese ganging up on me, the silly waiguo-ren living all the way up on the top floor.
But what am I thinking? The people here in South Taiwan are actually pretty hospitable and laid back. Not to mention the fact that I don't really have anything in my possession I can afford to throw out of a window at 4 am.
In any case, I realize that it is way too early for me to try and process such random thoughts of superficial in-consequence, so I shake my head, lie down, and I fall back asleep to the humming sounds of early-morning mopeds and growling street dogs.
Sometimes it feels like I am in an alternate universe, where the buildings and streets vaguely remind me of Hawaii and the people look like the people back home.
But the words that I hear are foreign to my ears and the words that I see are indecipherable in my mind. All too often I find myself feeling both mute and illiterate.
And yet, through my inability to communicate in ways that I am familiar with, I find myself having to get creative, speaking with my hands and face, or listening intently with my eyes.
I know now that if I can't find it, I can sheepishly motion to the clerk, asking, “Where can I find a toilet bowl plunger? Yes, a toilet plunger.”
Or if I don't feel like eating pig knuckle again, a flap of the arms and a loud 'Bok-BOK!' gets me shredded chicken on a scoop of rice. Of course, the lady over the counter tells me, “Ji.” I stare at her blankly, “Umm, Ji?” And then slowly I get it, “Oh, okay...” I nod enthusiastically, “Yeah... ji!”
Here in Taiwan it's really true that a smile and a laugh goes a long way. It can even get you an extra piece of sausage on your lunch plate, along with your ji.
There's also those times when I realize I shouldn't presuppose. Like when I passed by a street window filled with roast ducklings and crispy roast pork.
As I walked on, I kept that street corner in mind, and when I went home, I pulled out my Mandarin phrasebook and conquered the words for duck and pork, “Ya” and “Ju”.
I smiled to myself, I was finally ready to speak to the natives.
When I went back a few days later, I stepped up to the window and waited for the duck-man to acknowledge me.
But when he nodded in my direction, fear took over, so I just reached around the glass, pointing at my items of choice, and said, “Duck and pork.”
My mouth was watering hungrily and I was too embarrassed to try and make myself understood. But in clearly pronounced English, the man asked me, “You just want duck and pork?" I blinked. "How about rice?” he said.
And what about my sleeping habits now? Well, thankfully the dogs were no longer outside tearing each other to shreds this morning.
But I was still shocked awake by the sound of 'Eye of the Tiger' blasting through loudspeakers.
I lay there in a deep sleep, only to hear through the thick darkness...”DUNH, pause, Dunh dunh DUNH, pause, Dunh dunh DUNH, pause, Dunh dunh DUUUUUUNH!”
I sit up in bed, this time wondering if I'm in a movie running up stairs, or if my mind just decided to start playing a soundtrack to my life.
I rub my eyes and look out the window, peering eleven floors down to the streets below. I get up just in time to see a big covered truck barreling down the street, loud speakers blaring.
But fortunately for itself, the truck plows off into the distance, moving too fast to be hit by any random objects thrown from a top floor apartment window.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...