“And we are far, far from home, but we’re so happy.
Far from home, all alone but we’re so happy.” – “From Finner” by Monsters and Men
A few weeks back, I was chatting on Facebook with my good friend Simona. We’ve been friends for nearly a decade at this point, having met during our final semester of university and bonded (initially) over our mutual love of Oasis. As if to make up for lost time, we crammed years worth of friendship into the few remaining months before we graduated and I headed south to Nashville for graduate school. At this point, we’ve definitely spent more time living in different cities and having a “long-distance friendship”, but you know how it is with good friends: you keep in touch the best you can when you’re apart, and when you’re back together, you make the moments count and it’s like neither of you has been away.
Anyway, Simona asked me whether I ever feel lonely out here on the road. It’s not uncommon for travelers to feel displaced and isolated at some point, the so-called “stranger in a strange land” syndrome, but the truth is, I can’t think of one moment during this journey when I would say I have felt lonely, and neither can Tony.
I strongly believe that every place we have visited on this trip has come with some kind of lesson attached to it. Whether it has been hard lessons like learning when to fold in China or positive ones like discovering just how good most people are, not a day—or destination—goes by on this trip where we don’t learn something about the world, or ourselves.
Sometimes the lessons are clear and fairly obvious (like not renting the cheapest motorbike on the block and then being surprised when things go pearshaped…), but other times they sneak up on us and it’s not until we’ve had time to reflect on our experiences that we can fully appreciate what the takeaway message from a place will be.
“Give me my passport or I call the police. Your choice.”
Momentarily taken aback, the 70-year old Laotian woman across from me paused her tirade and sized me up, trying to decide if I was serious.
I was and then some. Having politely but firmly been asking for my passport for nearly half an hour, my patience was at the breaking point. Steph had looked up the number for the tourist police earlier, just in case the situation devolved as it so clearly had. This was not a bluff—I was ready to go nuclear.
Just as we did in Savannakhet, part of the reason we stayed as long as we did in Vientiane is because of the food. Six days in this city is probably unthinkable to most people, but when we weren’t trying to better ourselves through the MANY historical/spiritual buildings on offer, we were trying to do so through food.
As I’ve said before, prior to arriving in Laos, we had not heard very encouraging things about the local food. I have reached a point in our travels where I have not just accepted that I am a food traveler, but I’ve really embraced the fact that exploring places through the local cuisine is one of the things that excites me most about traveling and never fails to bring me pleasure. To that end, I made a promise to myself that one area I would definitely not skimp on our budget—for the remainder of our trip, but especially in Laos—was on food; if street food wasn’t widely available or not especially appealing and we needed to pay a little more in order to experience Lao cooking through slightly more upscale restaurants aimed at educating tourists, so be it.
Reports from fellow travelers assured us that we would get our fill of western food in the form of baguettes/pizzas/burgers during our travels through the country, and although I was certainly looking forward to a few international indulgences, I really hoped that the capital city of the country would also advance our Laotian food education.
We had been warned MANY times that Vientiane was a capital city like no other, but some of my Western biases run deep, and I just can’t seem to shake my preconceived notions about what a capital city will be like. Immediately my imagination conjures up visions of shiny skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, honking horns, pavement as far as the eye can see, snarls of traffic and a frantic pace of life. Merely pondering the electrifying energy of big cities makes my pulse quicken in anticipation. I expect an urban carnival of light and sound, with monuments of modernity standing proud on every corner.
Vientiane, of course, lives up to its reputation and—following the pattern established by our two previous stops in Laos—has none of these things. To be perfectly honest with you, were it not for a modest uptick in the number of tuk tuk offers we received while walking around town (though rumors of the Laotian laissez-faire sales pitch, in which a single “no” will suffice to preclude additional offers, are indeed true!) and a similarly slight increase in grumpy locals encountered (apparently the one universal hallmark of all capital cities…), we would never in a million years have guessed this was Laos’ biggest, most bustling city.