The searing heat. The pungent smell. The jarring shouting in a language I do not understand. It is market day in Savannakhet and the cacophony is overwhelming. I want to leave. The immediate vicinity. The country. I want to go back to the trappings and comfort of western life. I say as much. But for now we must find a location that we can communicate to our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Mao, to pick us up. A deceptively innocuous task. This is small-town Laos, notwithstanding Savannakhet’s official designation as the second city. Roads are unmarked and shops are unnamed. Above all, language is a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So we continue on in silence down a deserted, dusty road.
Our family of four draws stares. Some cold and hard. Some curious. Some amused. Tuk-tuk drivers and their passengers turn their heads as they pass us, as if to make sure we’re not some daylight apparition. I imagine the sight we must make. Me, a black woman, with my curious four-month-old peeking out from a baby carrier. My white partner alternating between frustrated looks at his phone and frustrated looks down the desolate stretch of road ahead as he tries to navigate using Google maps. Our six-year-old son shifting his weight from leg to leg in urgency. We’re as Falang as they come. My face crumples from the heat.
A woman speeds past us on a motorbike driving with one hand. The other hand clutches her baby who sits facing her straddling one leg. I kiss my own baby who is now sound asleep against my breast, pearls of sweat beading on his forehead. We reach a crossroad and the letters ‘NISSAN’ in big, red, block capitals beckon me like a mirage in a desert.
“We’ll wait for Mr. Mao there”, I say without waiting for an answer.
I relax ever so slightly as we walk into the air conditioned showroom.
No answer. There is, however, a bathroom much to our six-year old’s relief.
A young woman descends a staircase after a few minutes, looking at us inquisitively. We try to explain that we needed to use the bathroom. Whether she understood or not, she didn’t seem to mind. She shows us to a cubicle where we can sit and cool off. And shows us to the water cooler. Our khop chais are exhaustive.
“What do I say to Mao? I don’t even know how to say where we are?” Julien says, the phone at his ear.
“Ask the girl”, I offer.
“And say what?”
I can feel his frustration mounting.
“Just give her the phone”, I insist.
“Sabaidee...Mao. Nissan? Neeee-san? Car dealership?”
I can feel my own frustration mounting.
“Julien, just give her the phone”.
He complies and sheepishly hands his phone to our unlikely host. She puts the phone to her ear, looking at us questioningly. Then after a few rapid exchanges in thick Lao, she hands the phone back to Julien with a smile.
“Ok. Coming. You wait here”.
As we wait, I couldn’t help but wonder, how exactly did we end up here? A question to which, although I had the answer, I wasn’t so certain.
It was after a chain of curious events that the opportunity to move to Laos arose, set into motion on an idyllic day in Phuket, Thailand. Julien and I were lazing in an infinity pool overlooking Patong. The cloudless sky hung cobalt. The Andaman Sea glistened under the morning sun and rugged peaks rose majestically from the edge of the placid horizon. It was our first trip to Southeast Asia and Thailand, as it does, bewitched us. We wanted more. And so we decided that we would try our best to align ourselves with any opportunities that would allow us to experience living in Southeast Asia. But timing, as they say, is everything. When the first opportunity presented itself, finances and other logistical challenges made it implausible. Exactly one year later when the same opportunity came back around, we couldn’t have timed it better, had we tried.
Of course, Laos isn’t Thailand. But even so, this wasn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I agreed to move our family for a year. Quite frankly, when Julien was offered a one-year contract to work for an NGO in Vientiane, I didn’t know what I was signing up for at all. I knew nothing about Laos. And had never even heard of Vientiane. As is natural when considering uprooting ones family and moving across the world, I consult Google. Immediate search results do not present a very strong case in favour of the move. What would I do for a year in the world’s sleepiest capital? More importantly, what kind of life would our family have? How would the children, one yet unborn, fare? What if they got sick? Even worse, contract some disease long eradicated in the developed world? I imagined the worst like a panicky westerner.
After weeks of obsessively combing through any shred of information I could find on the internet about expat life in Vientiane, I became more enamored with the idea of life in a foreign country. I romanticized the idea of a slower pace of life. I imagined leisurely days that lingered and I became eager to leave the manic rush of North American life behind, even if only temporarily. And if ever I was missing the energy of life in the city, Bangkok was only an hour away. How exciting, exotic, it would all be. What an experience it would be for our six-year old! What wonderful memories we’d make! Alas, I was roughly jolted from my reveries when we discovered, almost at the last minute, that we wouldn’t be living in Vientiane as we had thought. No longer a hop across the border to creature comforts in Udon Thani, or a quick plane ride away from big city bliss in Bangkok. But as I’ve come to discover, the gateway to nowhere in quieter, sleepier, even less developed Savannakhet. I suppose, we could have backed out. And I quietly wish we had as we arrive home from our morning of misadventure at the market.
As the first weeks go by, I seriously consider going back to Montreal. There’s no way I could be happy here. What was I going to do for a whole year? The town is unremarkable and lethargic, its old-world French architecture derelict and sombre. There is no buzzing conversation in restaurants or cafes, no pulsating energy as the weekend approaches. The single nightclub in town advertises its hours of operation on its doors: 8pm – 11:30pm. Here, there is no easy escape to pass time. No shopping malls, no movie theatres. No synthetic reprieve. The expat community hovers around fifteen, surely due to the scarcity of ‘amenities’, particularly for those looking for a more palatable experience of life in Southeast Asia. And so the few tourists in town for a visa renewal hastily make their way back across the border to Thailand. Some days I envy them.
Life has a wicked sense of humour and my desire for a slower pace of life is handed to me, tenfold. As we settle in to our quiet, new life, I grapple with the languid pace of at which time passes. With our six-year old now in school (a small campus of one of the big international schools in Laos), and Julien flourishing at his job, most of my days are spent caring for our infant. There is no expat bubble to retreat to and so loneliness and isolation start to creep in. Mr. Mao becomes the one constant, shuttling me to and from cafes or to the mini mart. At first, I am content with the brevity of our conversations. I say I’m at home and where I want to go. He says OK. I say how much and he puts up fingers. But it isn’t long before I start to miss the luxury of being able to communicate. I sense that, he too, wishes he could say more.
On the day of my birthday in an effort to vitalize our mechanical exchanges, I point to myself and start singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Surely, that’s universally understood. Mr. Mao does understand. And after he drops us off at home that evening he presents me with a small parcel of snacks and drinks. And a birthday cake. The gesture completely takes me by surprise. But as I’ve come to know, kindness such as Mr. Mao’s is commonplace in Savannakhet. Even when words fail.
Now that I’ve been in Savannnakhet for three months, I’ve learned to appreciate the quiet. And I’m learning to make peace with my thoughts. Some days, I am transported back to the simplicity of my childhood in rural Jamaica. The sounds of crickets as the sun sets. The smell of humid earth after a downpour. Banana tree leaves swaying in a rainstorm. And even in the most foreign places, the familiar brings us comfort. Warming us like hot chocolate on a cold day. And perhaps, that is why we travel. Certainly for what is different and exotic. But maybe for the pleasure of discovering the sameness.
One might describe Savannakhet as a ghost town. And they wouldn’t be wrong for doing so. I thought just as much after I first arrived. Unable to see past the dilapidated buildings and unkempt facade. Unwilling to see past the dilapidated buildings and unkempt facade. I’ve learned that we see what we want to see.
Travel is changing. It seems for many it has become more about showing where we’ve been, than being where we are. And while places like Savannakhet might not be on top of anyone’s list of travel destinations, there is something beautiful in the simplicity of life here. Not easily appreciated, but it’s there. This is not the place for photos that will garner hundreds of Instagram likes. There are no iconic sites to lure droves of eager wanderlusters, smartphones in hand to bare evidence that they were here. But here, life simply happens. Naturally. Unrushed. Like the sunrise. Like nightfall.
As I type these words, there are two little girls swinging in the yard facing our house. They chatter excitedly in Lao with each other as they steal quick glances my way. I smile and wave.
Eventually one of them works up the courage to walk up to the fence and locks my gaze. She puts up her hands like a monster and roars. I do the same, and this sends them both running, squealing with laughter. Their joy is infectious. It reaches beyond their fence. And over my gate. Beyond culture. Beyond race. Beyond language. And it settles in my heart and warms me. It lingers. Like hot chocolate on a cold day.