See You Around

As I prepared to leave her grandmother’s home, I offered a perfunctory, “I’ll see you around”, believing that we had left a nice enough impression to think a future rendezvous with these thirty-somethings was likely.

To my slight surprise, our host for the evening took mild exception to my casual farewell.

“I don’t really like it when people say “I’ll see you around” because in my experience, anyway, they never really do.”

Without wanting to dig any deeper and employ on-the-spot therapy, I figured best to evade deep waters and swim around to where it was shallow.

“Ah, so we could say something else then. What would be more appropriate?”, I offered.

The innocence in my tone could not mask the awkwardness that had quietly entered the room. How sneakily of it, to have arrived just as we were about to leave.

I could not remember if anyone offered up another way to say goodbye and another way to ensure there ever was a next time. Our only saving grace this moment was simply, that we were too old, not to.

When you are thirty or hovering around it, as I am, I find that there just isn’t much room for unnecessary pleasantries. By now, we should have learned the tactful art of saying what we mean. As our host did, that evening.

There was a New York Times article making the rounds about how difficult it is to make friends after 30. For my wife and I, it was already true before we had even gotten there. Granted, we left all the friends we had and moved to a country where we knew hardly anyone, and we found ourselves in a netherworld space between families tending to their crying children, and families tending to their aging parents.

Considering the context, not having friends wasn’t entirely our fault. Our cats are partly to blame.

Some of the deeper connections we have made feel somewhat anomalous — one with two avid hikers in their late 40s and their precocious son who never runs out of questions for me about Marvel Superheroes, another with a vegan couple that religiously listens to The Young Turks, and finally, the first family that hosted us when we arrived, a young couple around our age with two beautiful tots that look like golden Viking children.

And then we have the friends we’ve made fortuitously, who surprise us at every turn with their kindness and willingness to tread the deeper waters with us. A “Chindian” who runs a local cafe and his wife, with whom we share the occasional foodie adventure around town. A young couple from East Malaysia, just finishing up at university, who worship the same way we do and share a similar taste in movies. And a young girl with a shaved head and a radiant smile whose gentleness is refreshing, and whose hatred for injustices committed against migrants in Penang, inspiring.

It was she that invited us to our host’s home – a magnificent place in a tucked away part of town we never traverse, with a sprawling lawn and its own little round-about driveway.

We were, for all intents and purposes, celebrating “World Book Day”, which may be all the detail you need to guess the sort of crowd we were amidst. But before I welcome any further judgment, suffice it to say, it was a lovely evening. How often do strangers come together to share passages from their favorite books? We literally read to each other, as if everyone were taking turns playing parents and children at bedtime, except we substituted warm milk and cookies for wine and cake.

The initial goodbye had morphed into a mundane ritual of standing and sitting until we realized that sitting and talking was our fate for the evening. And we welcomed it – this surprise gathering of Millenials, local and expat alike, sharing stories about everything and nothing, really. Just, slowly unraveling.

At this age, there isn’t any more need for pretense. It’s hard enough cutting through all of the fluff to get to the bottom of what it is that we all really crave – human connection. When we grow older, we stop counting stuff, and instead, we start counting friends, desperate to make sure that particular number isn’t plummeting.

To know we sat with strangers and read and told stories for hours is a good enough sign to think that, yes, maybe we will see them around. As scary as it might feel to say it, or as off-putting as it might be to hear it, there’s that hope implanted, for “a next time”.

And if that next time isn’t quite around the corner…well, we’ve found each other on Facebook. Now, there isn’t an excuse.

Grieving Miles, Two

Perhaps, he didn’t mean to leave us. Maybe, there wasn’t some higher purpose he had to fulfill. How burdensome, after all.

He just, went away.

It is easy to endlessly conjecture about why he had gone, or why he had been with us at all, in retrospect. Many times, we make the meaning we want to have, after the fact, not before it.

I want to believe that the cat we had just lost served us in some, divine sort of way, beyond comprehension. As if he were merely passing through, with a simple but necessary mission of unconditionally-loving his owners, offering them boundless joy, and inducing the most satisfying level of comfort they could ever ask for.

If so, then, mission accomplished. He left with the highest marks.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder the less rosy alternative – the ever-growing elephant in the quickly shrinking room – that, perhaps there was none of that, at all.

Only the reality, written in his eyes, that in what would be his final moments, he actually wanted to come back, too soon.

I struggle to write this, after having previously arrived at a far less bleak conclusion. Surely, this isn’t the alternative I want to believe. Not as the sort of person who believes in some kind of after-life, and some kind of Higher Being that knows ultimately more than we ever will. Being that sort of person, makes me, in turn, the same sort of desperate, finite figure in search for meaning, craving the truth of knowledge like a certain, tragic, being in a Garden, once did.

Perhaps if I knew the answers to the questions I keep asking, I wouldn’t actually want the truth. The version of Miles’ story in my mind, is good enough. In fact, all the details I have to work with, are more than what I could have ever expected.

It is fact that we never learned of Miles’ actual origins – only that he and his sister Madu were found in a box in a Starbucks by a German expatriate family, who then proceeded to leave the country and needed new owners for their newfound pets.

it is fact that Miles was always a clumsy cat (and much to our delight early on), never accounting properly for his own weight (and by weight, I mean belly) before pouncing upon, or jumping from, or leaping towards, anything.

It is fact that Miles stole his sister’s food, both secretly and blatantly. His appetite was insatiable.

it is fact that Miles slept, belly up, about as often as he did the way regular cats do, with limbs tucked in underneath and slight shoulder blades, protruding. Apparently, such a vulnerable posture from cats implies that they trust us completely.

That last fact might be my favorite thing about him, and in part, why all this hurts, too damn much.

I never would have imagined a cat be so, at ease. It was as if he had already, intimately known that precious lesson that eludes so many of us who are searching constantly for the next, best thing.

The best thing, is right now. This very moment. The present is the greatest of gifts.

Again, I project. I don’t mean to, but I do.

I have to make some sense of this senseless loss. I still just don’t understand why he had to go, so quickly.

Chances are, he doesn’t understand either. Life was pretty good for that cat. He lived on the 15th floor, in an ocean view apartment, and ate raw chicken meat, cut into little bite-sized pieces by his loving, doting owners mother.

She did it because we loved him, and he loved her back, and I never would have known why and how I’d ever love a cat as much as I did Miles, and I never would have known how a cat could possibly ever love us the way that he had.

There’s that old saying from Tennyson that comes to mind:

Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

I hate latching onto cliches for the life of me, but this one, I hold onto, with every ounce of strength I’ve squeezed out of the fruit born from my grief.

I do so, because I don’t know if the meanings I’ve made of his loss, are as true as I’ve come to believe.

I don’t know the greater purpose he might have served beforehand, had he had one to begin with. I don’t know whether his “time was up” or he had done what he needed, and left when it was over.

And if I can’t find any solace from asking questions to which I’ll find no definitive answers, then I must look elsewhere to find the peace and comfort I need, now.

I mustn’t keep asking why he had to leave so suddenly. I mustn’t wonder why he had ever come at all.

I must only acknowledge how surprisingly wonderful, refreshing, and joyous it was to have such a lovable cat. I never would have imagined how much he’d mean to me, spanning the entirety of his life, before ever coming to terms with the finality of his death.

That’s the only meaning I can hold onto with the utmost certainty. I can’t afford to wonder what sort of purpose he had to have completed by the time he left us. It is enough to hold onto the pure innocence and goodness he exuded with the life he had actually lived.

It has to be enough, because he was blameless, all throughout.

I couldn’t possibly answer any of the questions that begin with “Why?” Frankly, I don’t really want to.

But I’m happy to return to the question with which my answer is sure.

What was Miles, to me?”

For a season, much like a breeze. At times, sudden and wild; other times, soft and gentle, but almost always, arriving unexpectedly. I couldn’t have predicted that he’d come the way that he came, that he’d leave the way that he went, and that he’d last just long enough for us to know that surely, his sweet caress, no matter how fleeting, we would never, ever forget.

Grieving Miles

It’s been a week since our dearest Miles had passed on.

Each day gets a little better. Or, perhaps more appropriately, each day of grieving feels a little less worse. The pain and the loss are never, not, felt. Only in doses a tad more tolerable.

Grief feels like much like medicine – the kind you know you need but hate to ask for. That bitter taste that lingers long on your palate implores you to hope that, somehow, at the very least, it’s working.

When my grandmother passed away several months ago, I had considered grief to be a gift. It felt, to me, the thing you choose for – that you’re willing to take on – when you lost something you loved.

I loved my grandmother, in part, because the integrity of her character required only such a response. She didn’t “earn” my love, per se. But she elicited it from me, in the quietest possible way. I could not, not, love her. Her kindness warranted so much of it, from me. From everyone.

I grieved her because I loved her. I grieved her because I missed the chance to keep loving her in her final moments. I could only love her from far away.

***

The loss I feel for my grandmother is its own, unique and personal loss. Her memory affects me, and inspires me to this day. Much of the pain, however, has passed, and for this I am thankful.

That which I feel for my cat, however, has not.

I caution myself from thinking that the loss of a relative, or beloved human being, ought to ever feel something more or less than the loss of any other thing.

All life is so, so sacred.

Sometimes the loss just feels far more severe, by proximity.

I had seen Miles nearly every single day since we had left for Malaysia. We received him and his sister, Madu, very early on during our move. Their presence made what we had here, immediately, a home.

Miles had a wonderful habit of letting us know wherever he was in the house. Meowing in empty rooms was his way of informing us that the party he was hoping to start was beginning without us, and we were cordially invited to join him.

I wished he had done the same that fateful morning, on the balcony. I wish he had let us know, ahead of time, where he’d be.

Unbeknownst to him, he went to the one place where we couldn’t join him, or protect him, and the rest, well, is the hard history we’re slowly trying to forget.

Proximity.

I remember exactly where I was when it happened, and I’ll always remember: In the kitchen, making coffee, my morning routine.

The loss is profound because, he was never, ever far away. That morning, he was simply out of reach. It was all too sudden, too soon, and too close to home.

Whatever home we had, feels as though he had taken it away with him.

***

There wasn’t a single, mean-spirited bone in his body. He never intended to hurt us so deeply. His absolute, unconditional love was far too great. If I could borrow biblical imagery, it felt “vast, beyond all measure.”

It is losing such a love that I had grown so accustomed to – and losing it so unexpectedly – that is the real cause for the pain. It isn’t him, it is the stark reality of life without him.

I had gotten so used to having him but an arm’s length away while I worked in my office, his fat, furry body sound asleep upon the red pillows. I hardly ever wondered where he was; my comfort came in knowing he was simply around, somewhere, nestled intently against whatever soft surface he could find. As if being encased in his own warm, softness weren’t enough. He needed more. Comfort was his idol if he ever had one, and I can’t blame him for that, either.

Asleep

Miles, falling asleep – one of his favorite things.

***

I don’t know when this grief will go. I pray to God that it leaves me be, hoping peace come quickly in its place.

For my grandmother who had passed some months ago, and even for my other grandmother whom I had lost long before her, I had the privilege of time.

In retrospect, time was the real gift, less so the grief, simply because we were all able to prepare. We knew what felt to be the inevitable. But the sting of the loss will always be. I know this because, during the memorial services for both my grandmothers, if somehow I had found the strength not to break earlier, the pressure to crumble was overpowering. The greatness of the loss, the sheer, burdensome weight of it, will win. It always wins.

But they say that time heals all things. Perhaps, this is true. Time also helps brace ourselves for that which we know to be coming, if indeed, we know.

There was no knowing, with Miles.

And now, there is no knowing when, and how, time will work its mysterious, ancient magic. How ever reliable its powers may be, I can only pray such powers are exercised soon, and dramatically.

Yes, somehow, grief is a hard, yet beautiful thing. To love something lost, so deeply, that causes memories to jolt back into being feelings I hadn’t realized were ever there, is a sacred and beautiful thing, indeed.

It is, also, far too fragile. Delicate, like porcelain. And when it breaks, it shatters – the sound of which, producing a most terrifying sort of music. And yet, you have for that moment, music.

***

These days, silence is my enemy.

I’d rather hear the whimpering cries of the cat I have remaining, perhaps even the heaving, child-like sobs welling up from deep within myself, than the sound of nothing at all.

I know, it won’t be, forever. I remember days when silence was precisely what I needed. When I couldn’t give anything more for that particular gift – the absence of noise to clear my mind, and mend the heart.

But for today, and perhaps for many days to come, noise is what I need.

The ambient sort that comes from mindless television. The whirring of multiple fans running simultaneously. The self-preserving purring from Madu. Little does she know, it preserves a little bit of me, too.

Sometimes, the grieving calls forth an ugly, unintelligble sound, a garbled enunciation of what were once words, or a piercing shriek of no words at all.

Sometimes, when I sense the silence encroaching, I just speak. I speak to Madu. Or to myself. Or to God, even. At the very least I know, one of the three is listening, though I’m hoping such, from all three.

I do not remember the sound from Miles’ fall. I only remember the sound from my wife, thereafter. I only remember the horrid curses that came out of me that morning. The weeping uncontrollably, I remember, too.

These sounds, I’m willing to part with, fast.

I want new noises – joyful ones. Those that remind me that there is still much life that remains within the walls of our home. Like the skittering, scampering steps from Madu when she chases after her precious twisty-ties. Or the soulful sounds emanating from our record player, inducing us to dance the night away. Or the laughter that can’t help itself from stirring awake, the moments when we remember Miles and his endless cycle of quirky noises – when he got up from bed, when he was hungry, and even while he was sleeping.

While it may feel as though he had, Miles couldn’t have possibly taken home away from us. He only meant to leave us, quietly. To walk away when his time was up, and not come back.

My wife imagines him leaving through the front door, pacing around a little, and then, simply going away. Gone for good, without a sound.

By then, the party would have already begun. My wife, dancing without a care in the world, Madu looking on without a clue, and me, trying to match her moves with my own deliberate awkwardness. By then, Miles would have slipped away, to a place where we couldn’t join him, having done what he came to do.

He always got the party started, that silly cat. It’s now on us to end it well.

Why I Write

Update: The Good Men Project actually decided to run my little rant =)

Sometimes, I just need a little prompting.

I keep up with The Good Men Project, and on their blog recently, it posed a question open for any of its readers to chime in on:

Do you write for yourself, or for an audience? Do you write to tell a story, or to change the hearts and minds of men?


 

I write because I can’t, not, be honest.

Otherwise, I’d be going up to random strangers, shaking them profusely, admitting with wide-eyed conviction some deep-seated guilt or expressing an epiphany like an enlightened being. (Or a creepy one.)

Writing feels like an emptying.

It is like having a jar of sand that I open, and the contents of which I scatter out on a surface and sift through hollow seashells and shards of glass and jagged rocks and little stones that were once sharp rocks, smoothed over time. But mostly I’d have a lump of damp sand, once so densely packed, that it made the jar heavy.

The more I pack into my little jar, the more burdensome it becomes to carry. So I spill some of it onto a page, or scatter traces of it on a public blog post. It needs some other place to contain it, outside of myself.

That’s a little bit of what writing is, and what it does, for me.

For me, and surely for many, writing is at first, self-serving.

It is therapy. It is catharsis. It is unapologetic self-absorption. It is the hoarding of all the best recollections of things. It is the setting free of all the worst.

But once the words are read by another, the writing morphs into an entirely odd and frightening beast. That which was, at first, a platform for the individual becomes a spark for conversation, a reason for dialogue, and an opportunity for community. And then, it gets scary.

But if it were to remain too private — if too carefully stashed away for any wrath or embrace to welcome it — well, wouldn’t that be a shame?

Maybe, of course, the only kind of honesty I know to practice is the messy, navel-gazing, endlessly questioning kind, revealing raw ideas and sleeve-worn feelings.

But it’s mine, the whole lot of it, and the writing — the public writing especially — gives my brazen words their audience.

My honesty wouldn’t realize its own transformative potential, were it not subjected upon the immediate whims and fancy of the public sphere.

It needs to know if someone on the other side of the world is listening and nodding. It needs to know — I need to know — that there are others saying, “Yes, me too.”

Ultimately, then, the writing becomes a remarkably humbling process — because with it comes the risk of bearing one’s soul so openly, without ever knowing for sure if it will be accepted, let alone, understood.

Regardless, after such a risk I can only expect, if nothing else, a profound relief.

By the River

It felt a fitting end that we spent our final evening in Vientiane, by the bank of the Mekong River.

Laos is a country bordered by rivers, but there’s something about the Mekong in particular that sets apart from the rest. I still don’t quite understand it myself – perhaps I’ve simply bought into the mythic kind of quality it possesses, or that I recognize it’s significance as a “lifeline” for so many.

Whatever the reason, I revere this river, it being the subject of so many books, it being the path upon which so many journeys have been taken.

My path, meanwhile, was simply to walk alongside it, along with hundreds of other locals who have it as a privilege to run, jog, and stroll on the newly paved road right by this body of water. Hoards of women have even taken to performing high intensity, guided aerobic workouts at sunset, a sight that, at first, a curious thing to witness, turned quickly into the one spectacle about this incredible gathering of locals by the riverside that interrupted the tranquility of the late afternoon transitioning to dusk.

The sunset was majestic. I’ve seen my share of incredible sunsets in my travels, but this one in particular will be seared into my memory for years to come. I think it’s because this one felt the least bit private. It was almost, communal, as though everyone had gathered by the river bank to witness something sacred together – the meeting of sun and river – and it implored stillness from my restless soul.

After a long walk, we met up again with a friend from Malaysia, Tommy, who is on an internship in Laos for a language program. We walked back the opposite way, basking in the waning moments of sunlight, meandering slowly through crowds starting to gather at the night market. Finally, we arrived at a bustling local restaurant, which felt more like an after-work drinks destination, mostly for locals looking to end their day with Beer Lao served with ice, a platter of steamed fish and vegetables, and a view.

Doing as the locals do, we opted for the same meal we saw on everyone else’s table, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. It was the right meal, for the right way to end the trip – simple and unceremonious, but supremely satisfying nonetheless.

We had a quiet evening despite the crowds becoming increasingly raucous by the river, and our night would end earlier than most other evenings we spent throughout our travels the past two weeks. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I wouldn’t have done any of our trip, any other way, for that matter. Not even the unbearably long bus rides through hills, and valleys, and hardly-inhabited rural towns. Nor the uninformed adventurousness of our street food sampling that likely led to several days worth of stomach pains. And certainly not having to walk, everywhere. That is, whenever we weren’t boarding a boat or bus or train. For me, the walking might’ve very well been, everything.

Surely, there are things I’d never do again. But I want to make a distinction between regretting what we had done, versus learning not to do those things again. Chances are, I’m never choosing to do an 11-hour bus ride again. Or an 8-hour one, for that matter. Or eating meat parts from a roadside stall whose origins were a little too ambiguous.

Never again, for some things. Glad, nonetheless, that at least, I had.

Luang Prabang, then, the Worst Ride Ever

Gone was the sensation of being on-foot while taking in the serenity of a riverside stroll, without minding the mild sweat building on my back and forehead. The glistening surrounding waters and preserved colonial-inspired architecture of many of the town’s guesthouses looked far too pretty to feel perturbed.

Instead, Shuli and I were back on the road, on what would amount to be the longest bus ride we’ve ever taken together.

Mostly, the languid pace which seemed to characterize much about Lao people and their culture had been the sort of charming quirk we’d find rather appealing, as we journeyed through quaint little towns like Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw, across Laos.

But the trip to Vientiane had reached a level of lackadaisicalness that was almost beyond bearable.

We bore through it because we had little choice. We were stuck in a bus filled with other sweaty tourists, foolishly expecting that it live up to the “VIP” class it had boasted when we bought our tickets.

What we got instead was a decades-old liner without any air-conditioning, run by a trio of guys who appeared determined to take up the entire, 9 hours the trip had promised, and perhaps longer – whatever suited their fancy.

I can understand traveling at a relaxed pace to get somewhere, but that should have no bearing on actual timeliness. Rather than promptly leaving at 8:30am, we actually left the bus station an hour later, already pushing our ETA in Vientiane back significantly.

This was particularly frustrating because Thongbay Guesthouse had been so comfortable for us and so accommodating it was a little disappointing to have to check out so early, only to depart so late.

We were off to a bad start, and we were at the mercy of guys who took tardiness to a whole other level when dozens of passengers were waiting, without explanation.

That should’ve been the sign to me that this particular leg of our road-tripping was going to be painful. I held out on the belief that the ride from Sapa to Dien Bieng Phu had to have been the worst. Shuli was convinced we had another thing coming.

Several factors contributed to making this part of the trip terrible:

1. No air-conditioning – I’d have preferred an all-or-nothing sort of scenario where it was either full-blast, frigid A/C or it was completely broken and we cracked open every single window we could on the bus and lived off of fresh air. Instead, the blower spewed out what seemed to be a very, very light stream of air that did nothing for no one other than tease them of how good, actual functioning “air-con” can be for, everyone.

2. 11 hours – 11 hours!!! We were told it would take 9, which would have been devastating enough. Further, as if we hadn’t already departed late, for much of the trip the driver insisted on driving at a speed reminiscent of that of a child in a sack race (Shuli told me I could’ve beaten him, on my bike, which, if you know my poor track record with biking, is saying a lot). And this doesn’t include the extra time it took to travel on a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city center where we would be staying. Why not just round it up to 12, then?

3. The usual windy, bumpy roads – At this point, this was all too familiar, which, for that very reason, made them a bearable pill to swallow. That said, there were no shortage of stomach-churning turns to brace for, so getting sleep was next to impossible. Podcast bingeing as distraction was critical.

4. Music – I don’t really mind Lao music. Not even unbelievably loud Lao music. What I did take exception to, which, to no one’s fault really, was how so many of the melodies sounded so exceptionally…cheerful. They just didn’t fit the collective mood swelling in the upper deck of utter despair. Not a good match.

5. Unapologetic – Which really, was the worst. The guys running the operation simply offered no explanations for any of the delays, did next to nothing to make the trip more comfortable for us outside of opening the bus’ sun roof window, and didn’t bother telling us how long the journey would take until, I had had enough and tugged at one of their shirts, pointed at the time on my iPad, and did the best I could with vague gesticulations to ask when we’d arrive.

He took some time to consider his response, and finally, smugly, said, “8 o’clock.”

It would’ve a little better if he had been right. But he wasn’t.

The kicker came here:

It was already dark. My eyes were trying to shut to sleep but my body had gone beyond the point of sleepiness and settled instead on the terrible combination of hyper-alertness and weariness. A young girl dragged herself to the front of the bus carrying an inflatable neck pillow, plopped herself on the open two seats available, kicked up her feet, and reclined her chair. She had had enough. For her, it was just over.

It was as if she had finally confronted the possibility that this bus ride would simply never end, so she might as well make herself comfortable.

Something about witnessing her resign herself to our collective fate was both incredibly defeating, and strangely comedic.

I started laughing to myself, quietly. It had gotten to that point, where the misfortune of losing an entire day on the road had simply become another humorous footnote on an, otherwise, arduous series of travels, by water or by road, between Vietnam and Laos.

The real unfortunate thing was losing that sense of appreciation for what we had just had. It had become a quickly distant memory – taking our sweet time, walking through the night market without getting hassled by vendors to buy their ethnic handicrafts (which we bought anyway, since most everyone was so respectful about the whole exchange). It wasn’t that long ago that we had lay down on our balcony to feel the calm breeze emanating from the river, brushing our faces as we watched the sun go down just as quietly as the rest of the town had moved.

The bus ride, for its length and lack of comfort and lack of accommodation and hospitality, caused me to stop feeling good feelings. For stretches, it was as if I had been purposely ignoring the beautiful, lush, scenery that still surrounded us – jagged mountains that pierced the clouds and rolling, green hills that followed us closely as we ambled along.

At some point, I had a better idea about what one of our fellow travelers from the Netherlands had said, referring to an experience he learned from passengers taking a speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of it was, “At the end of a trip like that, your body just feels…broken.”

Indeed, after this one, this 11 hour bus ride, it was. At some point, the appreciation of the natural beauty before us had subsided, replaced only with a faint, but lingering despair – the kind that comes over any weary traveler, I would imagine.

Perhaps, I was missing Luang Prabang and all its’ quiet comfort. But likely, I was starting to miss home, even more. Finally, it was catching up to me. The desire for the familiar – for my two gentle cats resting by feet, for the soft couch I could kick up my legs on while watching a long film, for the street food around the corner – became increasingly palpable.

I’m just a few days away from a plane ride home, and I’m caught between missing what I had just left, while longing for what’s ahead – Penang.

Hopefully, when the weariness subsides, when a strong cup of Lao coffee enters my body, and when my energy picks up from covering ground on my own two feet again, maybe I’ll remember to appreciate what’s still fully before me – Vientiane.

Recovering from the Road: Vietnam to Laos

Again, a late post. Currently in Luang Prabang, heading to Vientiane tomorrow. Photos soon.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Muang Khua, a town not too far from the border of Vietnam and Laos. The Sannali hotel is the only hotel in town. Other lodging available are modest guest houses suited for backpackers. We’ve been backpacking as well, but this place, at this point of our trip felt most suitable for us.

Tomorrow we venture down the Nam Ou River. The water is the color of mud, and the current flows at a pace moving as languidly as the people seem to be in this quaint town.

There doesn’t appear to be a night life to speak of, and the local market when we visited it lacked the kind of frenetic energy I’ve grown accustomed to from the other markets I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

I’ve read and heard that everything in Laos moves at a much slower pace. Such was the drive to here from Dien Bien Phu. Such is the steady, quiet flow of the river.

Perhaps there couldn’t have been a more appropriate easing in to Laos and the slow pace of life than arriving first at this tiny town by the river. There also couldn’t be better conditions for writing, when there isn’t much else to do but embrace the stillness.

———————

The last few days after Hanoi have been a strange combination of experiences I’ll likely never do again. Not that I’d hate to do them over, but realistically, they may very well be the sort of things I’m happy to have done, at least, once in my lifetime.

In sum, they went a little like this:

Shuli and I shared an overnight sleeper train car with a French couple from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountainous region in Northern Vietnam heavily populated by the Hmong people and other ethnic groups, famous for giving guided trekking tours through the indigenous peoples’ villages, valleys, fields, and rice paddies.

The trek, was at times, absolutely breathtaking. I found myself stopping, less so to catch my breath, but rather, to let it slip away, and make room for the awe to seep in more fully. I was surprised by my own feelings of envy, assuming that the families living off of their own harvest have it so much better than we do, being situated so remotely, in the midst of such lush greenery.

We opted for a Homestay with a Red Dao family deep in the mountains which we couldn’t have possibly have reached without our guide, Sang, a young, Black Hmong man who works for Sapa O’Chau, the locally-run trekking company that arranged our accommodations. They also run a school, through which Sang and many other Hmong have learned English. We hiked a total of 8 hours.

(Chances are, I’ll write more about the Dao – pronounced ‘zhao’ – family later. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, treating us even to a ‘medicinal bath’ of fresh herbs, and an inordinate amount of Vietnamese cooking for dinner, highlighted by a copious amount of homemade rice wine, followed by the worst headache I’ve had in a while.)

From Sapa, we arranged for a bus to take us to Dien Bien Phu. The bus failed to fetch us, so Sapa O’Chau had to hire two motorbikes to take us to the bus while it waited for us several kilometers ahead.

When we arrived, we found that the bus was actually a mini van, filled mostly with locals, except for a bright-eyed couple from The Netherlands – Ruth and Thomas – who stood head and shoulders over everyone else and occasionally posed for pictures for curious locals. Two of the young women in the van were incredibly scantily-clad, wearing overly tight dresses and high heels – which wasn’t a good sign. Other passengers were a mother and her young son who was transporting several bags of fruits, and an old woman belonging to a tribe I couldn’t identify, who said nothing to anyone.

Our motley crew of travelers experienced a flat tire not long into a trip, followed by the unfortunate episode of getting stuck in a muddy path and needing another bus to pull it forward. I volunteered my help to try and push our van, stupidly enough to get my running shoes absolutely immersed in their own puddle of mud. It was silly on my part, but we all had a good laugh about it once we got moving.

After we were halted a few more times along the way due to construction work on the roads, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu, to a throng of aggressive men jockeying for business at the bus station. I was just relieved the ride was over, but I feared a little for the two girls that got off at the station with us. They disappeared quickly. We were on the road for a grueling, absurdly bumpy, 8 hours. It was by far the worst bus ride I’ve ever taken. Our new friends from The Netherlands were in such good spirits, however, that we figured it best to stick with them.

This morning we crossed over from Vietnam to Laos, leaving at 5:30 am on a bus headed for Muang Khua. We hit the border in the middle of the morning, got our passports checked, fell in and out of sleep the rest of the way, only to wake and find ourselves deposited into the middle of town by 10:30. Another five hours on the road, finally over.

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I’m finding that on this particular trip, I’m doing much of the “writing work” in my mind more than anywhere else. I’m taking mental notes of vivid scenes I want to jot down to unpack in depth later, or I’m snapping a quick shot or two on my phone for the situations that feel fleeting.

The actual writing I’m doing, when things have finally slowed to a deafening halt, is done primarily for the purpose of not forgetting. I’m writing for my own memory’s sake, really. Much of this trip has exhausted most of my mental capacity, if not for all the varied details I’m absorbing day to day, then surely due to all the seemingly endless hours spent on roads that are mostly, unforgiving.

And then we still have the boat ride tomorrow, down Nam Ou River.

Then another stop at another Lao town – Nong Khiaw – another small town which boasts a little more activity of the “eco”-variety. After which, Luang Prabang, a surefire haven for tourists visiting Laos…for better or worse.

But there I also expect to sleep soundly at a quiet, comfortable abode, riverside. For that alone, and for more strong Lao coffee, I have much yet to look forward to.

Scenes from Hanoi

Due mostly to unpredictable WiFi connections, this post was actually written about a week ago, and only going up now. Also, photos to come later.

I’m on an overnight train, leaving Hanoi, headed to a town further north called Sapa. I know very little about this place, other than having read it is mountainous and beautiful, and that the Hmong, and other indigenous tribes like the Dao, have made Sapa their home.

Truth is, I still feel I hardly know very much about the place I’m leaving.

Shuli and I have spent three days and two nights in Hanoi, sampling local dishes and sleeping in a run down “Homestay” operated by Pham and Hung, a husband and wife couple that had done their earnest in giving us a warm, comfortable welcome.

Pham looked like he’d much rather be by himself, though. It seemed as if being accommodating to strangers was learned behavior – a ready smile, a firm handshake, a quick offering of food or drink, a willingness to engage in small talk. Most of it appeared exactly as such, like willingness more than genuine interest. But perhaps much of his actual feelings about us, about his work as a budget hotel operator, were really lost in translation. I didn’t leave feeling disappointed by his seeming desire to just do his own thing – I just didn’t know if it was us that left him feeling disinterested.

I’m convinced that it was Hung who more than made up for Pham’s well-intended, but somewhat unnatural hospitality. Her smile was genuine and inviting. She had the sort of charm that seemed to soften her husband’s rather serious demeanor. She never undermined Pham’s rants on Vietnamese society, politics, or on the occasional bad review his Homestay might have received. She let him speak his mind, but whenever it was her turn, she always came across far more gracious, and even apologetic. I doubt that the warmth she exuded wasn’t the least bit contrived. But I could never really know.

What I do know is that Hung cooked amazing meals for us time and again, shared about her life as openly as she could, went out of her way to get us whatever we had requested, let alone, merely inquired about, and still insisted on giving us a parting gift of a free bag of Vietnamese coffee, and an accompanying filter.

Their home was our home for a few evenings, and they let us in on their story.

From Pham and Hung we had learned how property is really expensive in Hanoi, and they are lucky to even have a home, albeit a small one, to call their own. They gave us an explanation about how land was scarce after the 80s, which had inflated the price for land for many Vietnamese. We learned that many of the women carting around vegetables in the morning are, like them, from nearby provinces, who had come to Hanoi primarily to work and make ends meet.

I have no idea how they are really standing to make a profit. For a modest $15 a night, aside from room and board, we were treated to several generous meals a day – one evening included a feast of Bun Cha, essentially a mix of fresh leaves, noodles, and barbecued meats – certainly much more than what they had made it appear they would offer on their AirBnB listing. (I’m sure 15 USD goes a much longer way in Hanoi than what we might’ve done with it, but I can’t imagine they were saving that much of it given how much food they seemed to keep offering. I really don’t know.)

Another visitor at their homestay had confirmed the family’s incredible, genuine warmth and hospitality, telling us that the reason Hung and Pham weren’t around to properly check us out of their homestay was probably because they had taken out this visitor’s wife and kids for a swim at a local pool. We had to make our goodbyes over the phone.

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Everything seemed to move at such a frenetic pace in Hanoi, ourselves included. Walking slowly was a concerted effort on my part, as I found myself having to fight off feeling like I needed to move just as quickly as the motorbikes whizzing by us. Getting around on foot felt a lot like running for cover, at times. If we weren’t trying to dodge cars or bikes, we were still having to elude people.

People were everywhere. Sitting on little plastic chairs and low tables by what appeared to be these makeshift tea-drinking stations on the side of the road, sleeping on parked bikes, squatting on sidewalks, or peddling all sorts of items for sale, from tissue paper packets to cigarettes to the day’s leftover produce.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter was teeming with – well, everything. Calling what was before us (and behind us and surrounding us) a frenzy of motion and activity still doesn’t quite describe what it was like navigating its tiny streets. ‘Controlled chaos’ seems more appropriate. Never had the expression “method to the madness” felt more fitting than here, as if there was an order to the disorder that made perfect sense to the locals, and left the rest of us both bewildered and amazed by everything that was happening. Like I said, the Old Quarter was teeming, with everything.

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I’m tempted to go lengths describing the food but I’m afraid there are many other more seasoned “foodies” who have already done the due diligence of breaking down the unique flavors found on the streets of Hanoi. Besides, I’m perfectly satisfied leaving it up to the experts to differentiate between quality broths of pho.

Simply put, I enjoyed just about everything. I ate whatever was put in front of me, and more often than not, Shuli and I hardly bothered with a menu. We went to local joints that specialized in one or two dishes and gave our order as a quantity. “Two bowls”. Sometimes just holding up our fingers.

We had our fair share of bowls of pho that seemed to strike a delicate balance of freshness and fatty-ness – crisp vegetables served alongside heaping bowls of noodles swimming in broth infused with the fat from the chicken or the beef. The fish sauce was abundantly available, yet subtle enough when incorporated in dishes that it never felt so overpowering. Or perhaps my palate had grown so accustomed to the taste, that it had already changed. I’m not so sure.

I only know that I was surprised at my willingness to gnaw at what was clearly a pig’s hoof included in my Bun Bo Hue, or “choosing my own adventure” with spices whose power I couldn’t possibly predict until after my nose was immediately dotted with beads of sweat. If I refused to eat at a particular road side establishment, it was primarily because I didn’t really know how to make my order. Picking places that were populated with locals was a safe bet, and even better if they only served one dish.

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If I had it my way, (and it’s probably best that I hadn’t), if I had been traveling alone in Hanoi for a week, I’d have blown all my money just on coffee.

I still don’t have an explanation for the abundance of cafes (spelled ‘ca phe’) in Hanoi. The number of options to choose from is seriously overwhelming. I’ve lived in several cities that pride themselves in their “coffee culture” but I’ve never been to a city that’s taken it to the level that Hanoi has. Between the local coffee shops offering the standard “ca phe su da” (iced coffee with milk) to higher end establishments offering ‘Americanos’ and other espresso-based drinks, Hanoi is littered with options for the casual drinker to the caffeine junkie.

Me, I stuck mostly with the local Vietnamese way – incredibly strong, dark, coffee served with condensed milk and a single cube of ice.

I’m not sure anything else can really compete, in my book. The list of other caffeine-based drinks that are as consistently satisfying is a short one, and this one may very well be the runaway winner. The jolt I get from the very first sip is unmatched. The subtle sweetness of the creamy condensed milk mixed in makes for a nice contrast to the robust flavor of the roast. Vietnamese coffee is, in my opinion, well worth the patience it takes to prepare it well. It is not the kind of coffee taken, on-the-go, even if everything else around seems to be flying at that pace around you, as you take it. Something about the drinking of Vietnamese coffee requires a concerted slowness in intake to appreciate all its flavor. I just can’t get myself to “down it” if I had to. It would feel disrespectful.

Unfortunately, what I know is what I know. No one could explain why there was such a glaring proliferation of coffee establishments around the city. And no one could quite explain the magic behind a single cup of Vietnamese coffee, served simply, with a cube of ice. Sure, I could probably read about it somewhere, but that would just seem like I’d be doing myself a disservice to the experience. I’d rather someone walked me through it – someone wholly invested in the genuine look of pleasure on my face as I took my time with every sip.

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Shuli had asked me if I was ready to leave Hanoi.

The pace has certainly taken its toll. I wouldn’t mind an evening that wasn’t serenaded by the incessant honking of horns. Nor would I mind regaining the experience of crossing the street without thinking each stride was a matter of life or death by motorbike.

Truth is, I’ll remember how overwhelming everything appeared to be, but I’m not sure I’ll remember if I had actually felt, overwhelmed. The sense that I could’ve handled so much more of what the city offered, yet didn’t handle quite enough of it, makes me feel like, if I could, I’d at least want to give it another go. Just a little longer, for the next time – enough to actually feel ready to leave it behind.

Now, it feels like I’m leaving with too many questions still unanswered. But perhaps the lingering mystery will help me remember Hanoi with a distant sort of fondness – the kind you feel after having experienced too much without having much explained to you. The details might be fuzzy, but the feelings, even the ones I don’t quite understand, remain.

Roti Milo

Roti Milo

It may not look as if the slightly sweet, mildly bitter “milo” powder was incorporated into this delightful concoction, but inside that fluffy exterior is a surprising, subtle addition to an otherwise standard-fare snack in Malaysia.

The man running this particular stall explained to me as I was preparing to leave that he had just given a training session to the boy standing there with him – whom I presume to be, his son.

It appeared he had, gathering from the little that I could understand as I watched him explain the steps to the boy while whipping the roti (generally, an Indian unleavened bread) onto the table, spreading dollops of butter across the flat dough, and finally, sprinkling milo powder evenly around.

“Milo”, by the way, is a chocolate and malt powder typically served mixed in with hot or cold water, and sometimes sugar, for extra sweetening. It holds a particularly special place in my own childhood as my chocolate drink of choice, growing up in the Philippines.

The man laughed when the boy seemed unsure of how much milo to put in, as if he were doing so too sparingly. Even I know that you can never use enough milo.

He then folded the roti to create a pocket that kept the butter and milo altogether before placing it carefully on the well-oiled, rounded skillet that looks like the kind you would use for a crepe.

Each side of the square piece of roti was perfectly cooked to a flaky crisp, while maintaining a slight fluffiness to the dough inside.

It was worth the wait – watching this man and this boy, carefully make this roti for me. Perhaps he was preparing the boy to the run the business for him in the future. After all, he did refer to this morning as a training.

Which leads me to wonder how many of these makeshift establishments here in Penang will survive another generation growing older, and perhaps, further removed from carrying on this kind of family business. While roti would, on average, cost the customer no more than two ringgit a piece (around 60 cents), the labor cost is significant.

From the preparation of the dough ahead of time, to the cooking of various sauces (in my experience, typically a curry and a tamarind “daal” for dipping), to the kneading, slapping, and frying creation of the ordered roti, all in all it is a labor-intensive process. Not to mention, the man working this particular roti stall said he’s open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

After preparing mine, the boy immediately took a piece of dough and started pushing his palms into it, getting ready for the next customer’s order. As I was leaving, I told the man, the next time I come by, perhaps I’ll be buying my roti from his son, and not him. But after saying so, I realized that I wasn’t so sure.

Lost in Langkawi

We were quickly running out of options.

What appeared to be our final way home from Langkawi had quickly become just another dead-end. When we arrived at the bus station in Kuala Perlis, a gaunt, silver-haired man smoking a cigarette noticed our panicked, weary faces and decided to give us the finality we needed to hear.

“You can’t buy tickets here,” he said.

My wife and I and our two visiting friends, Ryan and Marian, huddled together without any other plan.

Then the old man broke our silence and said, “I have a van.”

But taking up his offer could be the makings of some terrible headline the following morning that would read:

“Four Hitchhikers Found in a Field”

Desperate for a safer alternative, we rushed the driver the moment his bus pulled in, asking if he had any room, offering him whatever cash we had. He counted the number of seats available. He only had one.

We went back to the old man, our spirits deflated. He told us it would cost RM300 for the three-hour ride down to Penang. We really had no bargaining power whatsoever.

“Give me a few minutes,” the man gently asked.

“Why?” I said curtly, surprising even myself.

“I want to pray.”

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My wife and I live in Penang, and it did not take long to discover Langkawi as a go-to destination for Malaysians, particularly those on the western coast of the country. It is an easily accessible getaway from cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur, so locals and tourists alike head there for decent beaches, good, affordable food, and a respite from a faster pace of life.

Ryan and Marian were long-time friends from my college days who are much acquainted with urban living in Oakland, California. It was my idea, then, that an island excursion for all of us would be most appropriate.

The morning of our trip to Langkawi, however, we found ourselves already on a mad dash just to reach the jetty.

My wife frantically weaved through traffic with the clock ticking, so we could pick up the tickets I chose not to print out beforehand and reach the boat departing at 8:30 a.m.

Miraculously, we made it, and after a smooth-sailing, three-hour boat ride, we booked a car to travel around the island. We proceeded to the northeast of the island, to the idyllic Tanjung Rhu beach.

While the waters weren’t as green and pristine as we had hoped, we stuck around until the sun became a burnt orange to witness another shore emerge from underneath the water, making for a picturesque, sandy “walkway” dissecting the shallow sea.

Langkawi_Shore-1024x768

My wife and I took a long stroll along the new shore that surfaced, while Ryan and Marian bought some fresh coconuts. We took our time drinking up the warm juice and scraping up the coconut meat. By the time we were through, it was dusk.

Suddenly I remembered we had to head to our hotel before dark. We had already missed our original check-in time so we could head to the beach instead.

We drove in circles in the middle of the island, lost and panicking about how to reach our hotel until, after finding the coast, we noticed a dimly lit road with a makeshift billboard that read, in tiny letters, “Ocean Residence” the name of our hotel I couldn’t remember earlier. For some reason, I hadn’t written it down anywhere.

It was too late to appreciate the actual ocean view the hotel had boasted, but at least, the four of us could enjoy a cozy, loft-style, brick-interior lodging for the remainder of the evening.

The following morning promised to be a little less stressful.

After checkout, we couldn’t leave our hotel right away, because I had accidentally set our car alarm off and it wouldn’t turn off.

The workers at the residence started to gather around us, confused and visibly annoyed. One of the men decided to take the keys from me to look at the car himself, fiddling with the exposed wires underneath the dashboard, popping open the hood, and eventually, unscrewing the plug for the car battery altogether, just so the noise would stop.

The manager made a call to the car rental office. In 15 minutes, the agent arrived, and in less than five, he managed to stop the alarm for good. Apparently, there was some broken switch in the middle of the dashboard that we needed to press if the alarm ever went off – something he didn’t bother explaining when we first took the car. Without saying much else, he encouraged us to get the car back to the ferry office well ahead of the boat departure.

That much, I figured, I could handle. We had several hours still to roam the island before boarding at 5:30 p.m.

Driving along Pantai Cenang, the main drag by the coast, we found a decent Thai restaurant for lunch. Afterward, I suggested we get all get massages. But after phoning one parlor after another, we found that none of them offered a massage for under a RM100, or had enough private couples rooms to accommodate all four of us.

Ryan wanted no part of the massage idea anyway. He was much more looking forward to a visit to the local aquarium. Underwater World was about as family-friendly as it would get, wasn’t too costly, and wouldn’t require us to drive much farther. From there we would head straight to the jetty.

After watching penguins waddle and witnessing the aquarium staff feed the other neighboring sea creatures, we decided it was time to head for the jetty, a little after 4 p.m.

My friends and I finished a light meal at the food court at 5:15 p.m., thinking we had plenty of time to spare.

But as soon as we arrived at the main departure hall, we found no line of passengers waiting.

Sweat started to break on my face and armpits, immediately. All the signs said the departure time was at 5:15 p.m. I remembered watching Ryan devour a piece of chicken at 5:15.

I swore to myself and to my friends, repeatedly, that I had seen the departure time listed online at 5:30 p.m.

I looked at the tickets in my hand closely. 5:15.

I pleaded with the staff—as if they could somehow make the boat turn back for us—to no avail.

Naturally, I kicked my backpack, thinking no one was looking. Except, everyone was looking. Worse, my iPad was in there, and I regretted it immediately.

My wife took over the planning for us. She had to – I was fuming mad and couldn’t think properly, let alone say much else other than swear. She quickly gathered from the staff that, if we booked another ferry to Bukit Perlis, we could catch a bus at 7:30 that would head down to Butterworth, which was on the mainland of Penang.

That was our best option because it was the only one we had.

I hardly said a word, nor could I look at anyone around me. I just stared blankly ahead, still perplexed by the fate that had befallen us. A familiar sort of anger, the one that overcomes me when I perceive myself making blatant, avoidable failures, consumed me.

While I did my best to avoid eye contact, my wife, who is hardly ever confrontational, was determined to get my attention.

In her most direct, nonsensical way, she said, “If you can’t handle these kinds of little problems you can’t control anyway, what about the bigger things?”

My eyes were quickly filling with tears getting too heavy to hold back. I was already blowing an undesirable situation further out of proportion as if I had to make my singular planning mistake feel even worse by playing it on a loop in my head.

Worse was how I couldn’t spare myself the shame of a public meltdown for something so small, and stupid.

So instead of creating a bigger, more embarrassing scene, relenting and making more excuses, or justifying my own irrational anger explosion…

I slept.

We arrived at the station 15 minutes after 7, so we blitzed over to the bus terminal, only to receive our bad news.

Whatever words I had to offer to my wife and friends would have felt like another empty promise, the residue of yet another failed attempt to make things right. So I offered up none.

The old man at the terminal, however, offered up his van, and his prayers.

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He also offered to switch cars for us. I didn’t feel I was in a position to negotiate, so, we just let him decide.

The van seats offered comparable leg room to what a budget airline would afford its passengers. We all sat up straight and I couldn’t figure whether this was because we couldn’t adjust our seats, or we were still in shock that we took this man up on his offer.

But the longer we drove along the coast, watching the horizon getting absorbed by a blanket of midnight blue, I noticed the tension in my body beginning to erode and I slowly started to gain that feeling I had longed for the entire trip – a quiet calm – finally setting in.

After about half an hour, we reached what appeared to be his house. It looked like a flat, one-story block of concrete. A cat jumped out of the window to greet him, and then, a woman stepped out, presumably his wife. I was afraid we might sit in on an awkward exchange between her and the old man, due to what I assumed was the inconvenience we were causing. But there came no such tense conversation.

The man had a Toyota Camry parked in his garage. I figured that was the car he was referring to, and it made sense that he would want to switch—he would be saving a lot of money on gas.

All our stuff fit snugly in the trunk of his Camry. And while I had to sit up in front with a complete stranger for a few hours, I couldn’t help but at least feel grateful for the extra leg room.

After bidding his wife a brief farewell, we hit the road again.

The old man slowly reached his finger over to the car’s CD player. A few seconds passed, and then a song I’ve heard a hundred times before came on.

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost

Aloe Blacc’s voice on “Wake Me Up” would stir anyone up into a momentary frenzy. The thumping beat of the bass line when the chorus hits wouldn’t allow for any sleeping on the ride home. Soon we were then serenaded by the likes of Pitbull and Macklemore. He had this “top hits” CD on repeat.

I finally asked the man for his name, feeling silly that I hadn’t bothered to do so the entire time we were with him.

It was Abdur Rahman.

He explained how we were driving through the state of Kedah. He then pointed at a bright, beaming white tower standing alone on the horizon, towards Alor Setar, the capital city.

He mentioned his daughter lived in Penang, and it was with her that he would spend the night.

He drove like a much younger man. He tailed and bullied and whizzed past three or four cars at a time throughout the duration of the trip, even racing towards on-coming traffic on the right side of the road, just to pass slower vehicles. And since I sat up in front with him, I did a little praying of my own, closing my eyes every time I could sense him revving up to pass.

It wasn’t safe. And yet, I felt absolute relief that it was Abdur Rahman, and not I, who was fully in control.