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.

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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.

——————–

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.

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Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.