Sitting almost Mekong-Riverside at my latest home and I’ve taken a big step up in my accommodations. I decided it was time and I’ve chosen a perfect place to do it in – Villa Kang Khong Guest House on Don Khong Island in Si Phan Don, the land of 4000 Islands. Is there a more beautiful place in the world? No need for comparison, of course, but this is the most beautiful place in this moment! We arrived yesterday, which is a story in itself – but for now, I am on this beautiful lanai (okay, lanai fits for now); in this sleepy little village that most tourists who land here stay in for 24, maybe 48 hours. At this point, I simply can’t imagine leaving!
My room is a dream – big bed, not like the rocks I’ve been sleeping on, en-suite bathroom for the first time on my trip, hot water even (!), loads of space, lots of windows looking out to the garden, even hangers and tables for my stuff! All for a whopping $7, which is, as I say, a big jump up – double of what I’ve been paying since I’ve been in Lao. I decided my budget could afford it and I wanted some of these extra comforts.
The Guest House is a gorgeous old French colonial villa with a strange mish-mash of French and rattan furniture (the combo actually works in some odd way!), cozy corners with couches and cushioned, rattan bucket chairs throughout the common areas to sit and relax, deep mahogany-colored, wide-planked and polished teak wooden floors, so few tourists around (none right now), palms surrounding the lanai, very gently swaying in the slightest-almost-barely-noticeable-breeze and the distant whirring of only a few motor bikes. So peaceful. So calm. So gentle. Really, I am falling in love with Lao. There is a tenderness here, no one pushing, no one threatening, and no one the least bit aggressive. It’s the easiest and most laid-back 3rd world country I’ve ever encountered. My biggest concern is becoming too lackadaisical, but for now, I’ll let it happen. The only thing harsh is the mid-day heat and sun; hence I am happily ensconced on this covered lanai in the middle of the afternoon.
Jaka and I were out on a bicycle ride for several hours this morning, but it got way too close to the mid-day sun before we got back and the heat really tuckered me out. I got back to the hotel room, immediately stripped and ran under a cold shower (ohsure, now that I have a hot shower, all I want is a cold one!) and then directly to bed to rest and read for an hour and half just to cool myself down. Important lesson here – bicycle riding only in the very early morning and late afternoon! I’ve rented the bicycle all day, though, so I will wander back out on it later – at $1.25 for the entire day, it can stay parked for most of the heat of the day with no worries!
Maybe you’re wondering if I’m gonna keep quoting prices throughout this whole trip … the answer is – yep, I sure am! I’ve got a long time out here and keeping track of my daily budget is not only an exercise to keep my Virgo energy occupied, it’s also critical to being unemployed (yippee!!!) and to being able to be out here for so long. My intention is to live on $25 per day, more or less, throughout the 5 months out here in South East Asia – that’s been challenging already sometimes and surprising when I sit to recount the day’s spending; but I’m pretty much on the mark and it’s close enough! My growing penchant for almost-daily massage is a big budget item for sure; but if there’s money better spent, I’m not sure how!
The story of getting here was quite an adventure and one I’m eager to report, so here goes:
In my zest to make contact with the local people who barely speak a word of English, I sometimes forsake contact with my fellow travelers, those mostly 20-something backpackers who I’ve been known to have a bit of a judgmental attitude about – yep, it’s true, I can be a snob and I admit it. There, I’ve said it, I’ve fessed up; and who knows, maybe I’ll learn to let go of it this time around.
So, I was giving myself a good talking-to about this the other evening in Champasak and came up with a plan to be more friendly, outgoing and willing to sit and engage in some of the chit-chat that normally leaves me bored. I’d often rather walk or write or read or meditate or masturbate or anything else. But I decided to push myself this evening and join a small group of people chatting outside the Guest House. They were very friendly and welcoming; and the discourse was happily more than the standard “Where are you from, where have you been, where are you going, where have you stayed,” often with an edge of competition about who has been, seen and done more – ugh. Sometimes those chats are fine, of course, and even helpful for us all out here, figuring out the details of how to move through foreign countries; it’s just the contest part that leaves me cold.
Anyway, there was the handsome journalist from Copenhagen, the beautiful blonde Swedish woman living in and loving Amsterdam and the Moldavian Brooklyn-ite, living in Thailand. What a combination! We shared some stimulating political and social discussion and I was better for the evening and glad to have had the opportunity to discard some of my worn-out stereotypes. It was in my leaving when I mentioned to Michael the Moldavian that I was headed south in the morning. He too was leaving and by boat – a method I had been trying to find for the past several days in Champasak, told each time that there were no boats, only tourist mini vans, which I had finally agreed to take. He assured me there was room on the boat and I was welcome to join him and the several Chinese people who had organized the trip. I was delighted. Even at more than double the price of the van, it was the journey I was after and I was happy to pay the premium. Early the next morning, I cancelled my mini-van reservation with the Guest House and headed to the meeting place, excited for this new adventure.
I came upon the group of Chinese and asked them if it would be okay if I joined them, “Of course, of course, the more people we have, the more the cost goes down for each of us.” I was in! One of the women clearly emerged as the leader of their group of five – she was organizing, figuring out money with the addition of another person (me), speaking excellent English (lucky for me!) and negotiating with the Guest House owner to finagle an even better price. Because we now had nine people (a few others had joined, too), there was talk of the need for a bigger boat and a bigger price. We all agreed. I proceeded to have breakfast and wait for the boat’s arrival. Then the fun began – M-the-M (you remember him?!) showed up; and when he got wind that the price was now 133,000 kip rather than the 120,000 kip he had been quoted the prior day, he balked. The Chinese woman leader told him he had to decide right now because we would either take the smaller boat or the larger one, dependent on his decision. Even with the explanation of why the cost was more, still he argued. I piped in and reminded him that he was arguing about a dollar and a half and that the boatman set the price, not us – this didn’t stop him, “I guess I’ve been living in Asia too long.” Okay, suit yourself. Now we were back to the smaller boat and the smaller price with eight of us. The Guest House man was getting frustrated with the back and forth decision-making, but finally we were done and it was settled. We all paid the woman and we sat and waited for the boat to arrive, the whole process having taken about an hour. Then M-the-M shows back up, pouting and saying to me, “Well, now you’re on the boat and I’m being left here, stranded.” “Whoa, Mr. Asia, I-don’t-want-to-spend-another-dollar, no one is stranding you.” I said (you can talk like this to someone raised in Brooklyn, believe me!), “You made a choice, you didn’t want to pay the extra money, so we got the smaller boat and now there’s not room for you.” “Well, just like the decision was made to get the bigger one and then the smaller one, you can all now agree to get the bigger one again.” I looked around at my compadres. I wasn’t gonna be an asshole, so I agreed, “Okay, I’ll pay the extra $1.50 (part of me, I just couldn’t help it, rubbing it in), it doesn’t mean that much to me.” But it was too late. Others didn’t want to wait for a new boat to be ordered nor to engage any further wrath of the Guest House owner. The Chinese woman told him, “I asked you to make a decision and you did. We can’t change it now.” And off we went, with rumblings of annoyance from the others at his attitude, his frustration directed at us (me) and his seeming lack of ability to recognize the choice he had made for himself.
It’s an important lesson out here – be careful of bargaining too hard – and for what? The mini-van for the day had left – now the boat was leaving and he wasn’t on either one of them, because he didn’t want to pay an extra $1.50. That doesn’t come from living in Asia too long, my friend; it comes from being hard-headed and stubborn, no matter where you live! Oh, and of course the other lesson – quit sniveling about being left behind and take responsibility for your decision without blaming others for it!
He was a short topic of conversation as we boarded the boat, but he and Champasak were quickly left behind and we were off to points south and glad for it!
I ended up sharing one of the thin wooden planks that served as our seats with the Chinese woman who had been organizing everything. What came of our conversation is certainly a major highlight of my trip thus far – her name is Jaka – well, that’s her English name anyway – I couldn’t begin to pronounce (nor to write on this keyboard) what her Chinese name is. She’s from Shanghai and on a 3-week holiday here in Lao. These other folks are people she’s met along the way with whom she began traveling and became the natural leader and organizer. Her English is excellent, which is the only reason we were able to communicate as fully as we did. And we did. She’s small in stature with a contemplative, almost melancholic pretty round face that often opens to a warm smile, surrounded in chin-length dark brown hair with magenta highlights. She’s 35 years old, has lived in Shanghai all her life, is an only child (from the Chinese one-child per family law) of deceased parents. She is unmarried, majored in biochemistry at university and works for a Danish pharmaceutical company. And she has a penchant for traveling, anywhere and everywhere; and although she’d like to, she hasn’t been to the US because it’s impossible for her to get a Visa there (especially since she has relatives there, because the US government is afraid she won’t leave – ugh).
Our discourse flowed easily and warmly, each of us excited to ask and answer each other’s curious questions – from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Facebook (banned in China), to women’s roles, Tibet (one of the 3 T’s you’re never supposed to ask Chinese people about, the other two being Tiananmen & Taiwan; but hey, as respectful as I may be, I couldn’t resist and she was so open and willing to talk), her take on Chinese culture, politics and social issues and so much more – what a gift to share this time with her! She marveled at my work as a psychotherapist – so unusual in China and yet while she was skeptical of its ability to help people, she was so intrigued, asking many questions about what I do and how I do it. She longed, she said, to have someone with whom to talk about her life’s challenges. I asked about what life is like for gay people in China and while it’s changing in her generation, it is still “illegal” and the older generation is very slow to shift in their ideas about the family and the traditional roles of women and men. She spoke of her interest to have a child, but not to be married; and how this was absolutely impossible for her in her country.
She told me about her sense of the fear that runs deep in Chinese society these days – fear for their future, fear for how to support their families and their lives. She spoke about their new focus on consumer and materialism and how it’s taking over. She spoke about political repression and how now that peoples’ lives have slightly improved in this area, they are less focused on the rights they don’t have and more determined to maintain the standard of living they have so recently acquired. They are making more money than they’ve ever known and eager to spend-spend-spend. It’s like a runaway train and it’s out of control. Sound familiar to any of us Americans? And maybe for our parents’ generation especially, after the war and the sudden prosperity that brought them the ability to have things they never imagined they could acquire? And the obsession with doing so that our country is still mired in?
I thanked her for this amazing cross-cultural experience; she thanked me for ‘understanding’ her. And she invited me to visit her in Shanghai, where she would offer me a real cultural experience of how traditional Chinese people live, she promised (although she admitted how much harder and harder this is to find). I offered her the same invitation, with the sad recognition that Visa regulations would likely make this invitation difficult for her to ever accept.
I felt so grateful for this amazing sharing, an experience that reminds me exactly why it is that I’m out here – and how the decision to sit and talk with the tourists the evening before had been an essential element in leading me right to this moment. Indeed, being more open, more curious and less judgmental about my fellow pilgrims made this all possible.
The backdrop of our boat trip was the perfect accompaniment to our newfound friendship. We marveled at the warm water, the soft light and the gentle river guiding us south. Mango, banana, palm and lots of other kinds of trees dotted the shoreline, along with soft beige sand. As we got further and further south, small islands began to appear like little tufts of greenery, visible only because we’re in the dry season. We meandered through what felt like a maze of them, headed to our destination of Don Khong Island which we came upon in about 4½ hours.
There was a time when this river was teeming with boat traffic up and down the river; and while there are other parts of it where that may still be true, it’s no longer so here. With the modernization of infrastructure in Lao, especially new roads, boat travel is becoming a thing of the past. It’s way more expensive and limited to daytime travel, while transport of goods and services can now happen so much easier, and more cheaply and efficiently via the new roads – ahhh, progress. We were one of the few boats we saw, except for the small fishing boats of the local fishermen looking for their day’s catch. Because we were such a rarity, the small patches of sand of the riverside villages quickly filled with waving and yelling children as we approached – what a novelty we were!
Upon our arrival, I headed directly to the Guest House I had read about and the others followed, although there wasn’t enough room for all of us here, so they chose another and we agreed to find each other later for lunch. Off to the bank I dashed as I left Champasak without much kip in my pocket and as the Guest House warned me, it was Friday afternoon (a detail I had lost track of) and the bank would be open for only another half hour until Monday morning. My banking business swiftly and easily accomplished, I returned to the river side and shared a fabulous lunch of veggies in coconut milk with sticky rice in the new village of Muang Khong, a very sleepy place with few cars, no traffic – just a few tourists and local people smiling and hanging out on the street. I was (and remain) thrilled to be here!
We gathered with a few other travelers for dinner at a nearby restaurant – young handsome Luke from Amsterdam, Betty from Hungary, teaching English in China and the Chinese contingent. A yummy meal of the local specialty, fish cooked in banana leaves (which takes an hour to prepare and is almost a custard-like consistency) filled my plate and my belly. Luke made silly jokes that kept us all laughing and his easiness on the eyes sure helped, too. The traveler crowd was growing on me and I was happy for it. But I excused myself after dinner, choosing not to continue the party with more drinking, and enjoyed a quiet balance of the evening to myself – a perfect combination.
After a fitful sleep in what felt like my enormous bed, I woke early and reflected on the good fortune and ease with which I found myself here. Such blessings I felt bestowed with! I had read that my Guest House offered a scrumptious breakfast so I ordered up some eggs and baguette (from what I can see, the most valuable thing that the French colonialists left behind!) and with my first ‘real’ book that I had found in Champasak about a Thai woman’s life; I settled onto the lanai for an slow and easy morning. No sooner did my meal arrive that I saw Jaka walking up, smiling and yet with an air of some seriousness about her. I warmly invited her to join me and she did, of course – my being here is why she came. We shared breakfast and decided to spend the morning together before her early-afternoon departure with the others to the next inhabited island down river.
She proceeded to tell me of her dream of us last night, how we continued to talk and talk with each other and how happy it made her feel. Then she said, giving voice to that seriousness I sensed when she arrived, that she had something to ask me about. She had a secret, she said, and while hesitant, it was clearly coming – she thought maybe she was one of those gay people we had been talking about yesterday. Carefully, tremulously, she shared details of the anxiety and stress of her secret and how trapped she felt, unable to live this truth of her life. She explained how she had always felt differently when she saw a woman than when she saw a man and how she felt this way from when she was very young. She couldn’t understand what was happening with her, she had no context for it and there was no one she could tell, certainly not her extended family and no one at work. To this day, she shared this with only a few friends, whom she had chosen very carefully, in fear that she would lose face and be discovered. (I notice my own nervousness here, right now, even, sharing her story.) She spoke of her sadness about wanting a child and how she felt there was no way she could ever do this. She spoke of how her extended family could not understand her lack of interest in men and how they often tried to set her up with a prospective suitor. She felt that perhaps she should succumb to such an offer and then divorce; and then, maybe then, she could be freer, as a divorced woman. She had no choice, she said, she simply felt she had no choice. And as the tears streamed down my face in listening to her story, all I could do was listen and let her know that she was not crazy, she was not ‘abnormal’ and that she had the freedom to love whoever she wanted, even if that was not true in her homeland. Ohmigod, I felt so helpless, I could only hope and trust that my presence in being there with her was enough. Some other travelers showed up, she managed to put the conversation aside and we quickly excused ourselves.
Our morning bicycle ride was absolutely beautiful – all along the river on a dirt path filled with sweeping views of the river, the small islands that dotted it all along the way and some simple thatched-covered wooden homes on stilts. We encountered water buffalo, dogs, cats, goats, ducks, chickens and chicks. Verdant green rice paddies lined some of the path as well. We stopped and took pictures, marveling at the beauty, and took turns leading the way down the path. I gently approached the subject we had left behind at the breakfast table, asking how she felt having shared her secret. She said it had made her nervous. “Oh, Jaka, what can I say to let you know how completely and totally you are just fine the way you are with me? I can’t begin to understand what it is like for you in your culture – all I know is how much it saddens me and how honored I am that you’ve chosen to share your truth with me. I so wish for you that it could be different. How I wish you could come to America and see that it could be different.” And I thought of my dear friends – so many of you so happily and freely who you are, loving another woman or a man or whoever you choose … and how frustrated and angry we get with our American issues (DADT, civil unions and marriage and all the gay-bashing horrors we all know about) … and yet seeing in this woman’s eyes, feeling with my heart how painful it is that she is so far away from feeling it is even remotely possible for her to live who she is, let alone experience any of the more ‘advanced’ notions of rights we so rightfully demand … and how a part of her has resigned herself to this truth … and that part especially so terribly painful for me to witness. I wanted to whisk her off to Puna or Provincetown or so many other places … yet I knew no such thing could happen – there was nothing for me to do, except to be as loving as I know how to be and to enjoy this magical time together. So we did. We really, really did. It was time to leave the heaviness of her secret behind. Smiles and laughter and an ease to the morning came as we found our way back to the village. It was then time to say good-bye as she was leaving in an hour. In my effervescent excitement about this time with her, I was aware of how much I wanted to reach out and hug her and yet equally aware of how much that felt like it would cross a line of comfort that I did not want to violate. So we held each other’s eyes for more than a moment, thanked each other again and wished each other well, with the reminder of our most sincere invitations to visit one another. And I watched as her bicycle wheels turned round and around until she was out of view … and she was gone.
Now it’s the next day as I finish writing about this, back on the lanai in the cool of the late afternoon. I’ve spent a very easy day of a slow breakfast, reading for some hours, wandering the village paths by foot and marveling at how natural it feels to be here and how blessed my journey of less than two weeks has been (how can that possibly be?!).
And here’s a fun surprise before I call this a post … as I was walking through the village today, I passed by Pon’s Restaurant, the one in which we all shared our first Don Khong lunch … and who would be sitting there but Jaka! So happy I was to see her, I sat down at her table before I even decided to do so – she had gone down to the next island, but really didn’t like it there – what with the young backpacker party scene going on (need I belabor that point now?!) and knowing how much she enjoyed it here, decided to come back for a day before heading back north as her trip comes within days of closing. The excitement I felt in seeing her was like coming upon a friend … no, it was coming upon a friend and I’m grateful that we will have yet another evening in which to spend some time together. For now, as promised to myself, I will spend the balance of my afternoon writing.
Jaka, my new friend – mahalo for your sweet, tender energy – my heart has been touched, I have been changed and I will never forget you.