Laos

On Travel

I’m writing this post sitting at my desk at home. I’ve readjusted to the conveniences of modern western life. It was only a few days before I stopped noticing the immense pressure that comes pouring out of my shower at any temperature I choose. And if the weather happens to be cool, which it’s not during February, with a flick of a switch I can heat my bathroom. As for the novelty of hopping in my car at will and zooming off to the supermarket to get whatever I might want, that’s gone back to ordinary as well. So ordinary that if I can prevail upon John to call into the supermarket to collect the occasional  item, well, I do. But I’m still relishing our fast and constant access to the Internet. In Laos it’s erratic and slow, especially outside the capital, Vientiane.

It’s not a usual weekend here in Napier. It’s Art Deco weekend. A weekend that’s really a week, when the world descends in order to celebrate our unique architecture. Last year we joined in. (In fact, an article I wrote about the experience was highly commended in The Cathay Pacific Travel Media Awards, opens in new window.)

John and me all dressed up for Art Deco Weekend

John and me all dressed up for Art Deco Weekend last year

Art Deco Weekend is a good thing for our place. It’s a lot of fun and brings in the prized tourist dollar, and the jobs that come with that. But, hey, we’re talking about the service industry, generally it’s not highly paid. Nevertheless, a job is a job. Neither is it ordinary life. Napier citizens don’t all dress up in period costume, most of us are still going about our usual business.

In Luang Prabang I often thought about home. There are a lot of similarities. The two towns have approximately the same population and a very small part of both is the focus of all the fuss. In Luang Prabang it’s a peninsula between The Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. In Napier it’s the old part of town, the town centre which was rebuilt in Art Deco style after a devastating earthquake and fire in 1931. (My parents both lived through this.) In Luang Prabang it’s all about the architecture, too; a unique Laos/French fusion which is preserved as a World Heritage Site.

Tourists to both places talk about the Mediterranean feel, as if that’s something to aspire to. It’s an association which probably has to do with the usually balmy weather during the tourist season, the cafe lifestyle, and the welcome mat that’s out for tourists.

A typical street scene in the tourist part of Luang Prabang.

A typical street scene in the tourist part of Luang Prabang

Iconic Napier Art Deco buildings, taken from the beach looking towards town

Iconic Napier Art Deco buildings

Both towns are stunningly beautiful. Here, in Napier, we have the wide blue of the Pacific, and the bluest blue skies you’re ever likely to see. There it’s the Mekong and the Nam Phak, the grandness of the hills, and sunsets which, every evening, made me pause and wonder, and click off hundreds of shots, in a futile attempt at a tangible reminder of the effects so much beauty had on the deepest parts of me.

Sunset from Mount Phusi, Luang Prabang

Sunset from Mount Phusi, Luang Prabang

Sunset on the Mekong at Luang Praban

Sunset on the Mekong at Luang Prabang

I couldn’t help thinking that the peninsula in Luang Prabang has gotten stuck in a type of time warp, that it’s all for show. It’s a bit like that here too. (Although Napier doesn’t meet the criteria for a World Heritage Site the centre of town is a historical site.) It can get a bit like living in a museum. I guess it’s all about the costs and the benefits. But there are times when it’s not much fun and not very practical. For those tourists who think you are getting a sense of what the town is like, you are not. You get the sanitised Disney version. Real life is a block or two away.

In Luang Prabang I occasionally saw tourists behave in a shockingly disrespectful and rude manner. I see it sometimes here too, although more often it’s thoughtlessness. People take photos without asking and block the footpath so that my choices are to barge through the group or step into the gutter.

You’ll know by now that John and I are slow travellers. When we find a place we like we tend to stay put for a while. It means we watched each day’s wave of tourists arrive. Tired from hours of travelling, in less than comfortable circumstances, they were often stressed about finding a guest house and their next meal. I was saddened by how often they were actively mistrustful of the people trying to help them, how often they ridiculed them. I think the people who work in the tourist industry must be some of the most patient people I’ve come across, especially in Laos.

Day after day tuk tuk drivers, receptionists, cooks, guides, ticket collectors, and cleaners, in the most trying of circumstances, sometimes without reliable electricity supply, nearly always without the infra-structure we take for granted in the western world, get up and provide their service again and again. They work hard and with rules and constraints we have little insight into.

When I talk to friends and colleagues here at home about our adventures some of them wonder why I do it. What’s the attraction? Weren’t you worried, or afraid they ask.

Well, yes I was, some of the time. Until I realised that I should be trusting the people who were trying to help me. Because they were all, with maybe one notable exception, trustworthy. You see, what happens to me, and it’s started again now that I’m home, is that I watch the news;  it’s full of horror: car accidents, murders, rapes, the heinous way people do treat people. The power of those images starts to overtake my day to day lived experience. I start to think the world is a bad place. In my more critical moments I think maybe the powers that be want to keep us frightened. There is plenty of evidence, historical and current, that a frightened population is an easy to control population.

I, for one, refuse to be frightened. And when I am I refuse to let that stop me from getting out there and exploring the world. Because that’s something I have to do.

It’s not about a bucket list. Or ticking off must see sites, although I’ve been to plenty of them and will likely visit more. All I know is that in those moments when I‘ve gotten myself somewhere I never thought I’d be able to get to, when I’ve met someone and made a connection, then for me, my world is the better for it.

Sure there are bad eggs everywhere. But whether you are in Normandy or Minnesota, Luang Prabang or Bangkok, or back in my hometown, most people are simply trying to find their way through life. And most people, just like me, are proud of their place in the world, keen for visitors, whether tourists happy with a Disney style experience or travellers wanting to look a little beneath the surface, to see the best their country has to offer.

Forty years ago this July I set off on my first overseas trip. To America. For a year. One of my keepsakes from that time is a charm bracelet. Each individual charm is a message of love down through the decades. Two charms in particular tell a story about  travel. They were gifts from my AFS coordinators in Minnesota. One is a globe encircled by the word ‘Love’. The other is of two hands clasped in a perpetual handshake. That’s what it is all about. The people.

But now I’m home and I’m restless. A condition made worse by the photos Ben is posting. This morning, John and I studied his most recent post. We looked at each other, and I said Wanna catcha plane?

Hold that thought, said John.

Yes, we’ve got plans. More soon on that one.

In the meantime, I’ve got more great stories to tell you about our adventures in Laos. I’ve saved some of the best for last.

Tell me, is travel important to you? What do you enjoy about it?

29 replies »

  1. This is a beautiful, lyrical post Jill, and so nicely captures the way I’m feeling right now too. We’ve been home for almost a week and “normal” life has totally resumed. Like you, I’m reflecting on where I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the similarities between home and “away”. Thanks for adding your stories and reflections to my cerebral pot. 🙂

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  2. Travel is, as someone else said, a fairly central compulsion for me. I love to see new places, new people, new experiences. It’s enriching, keeps me alive,.. I am a naturally curious person and that curiosity needs feeding! Alas, ill health means that I become easily fatigued and some things are no longer OK for me to do, but I still intend to travel as often as I can manage health-wise and financially. It’s always possible to adapt….

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  3. Love this post Jill and I so agree with you about your travel observations. Travel to me is a central compulsion. I don’t know why, but I get restless and when I’m between trips I always have the next adventure bubbling away at the back of my mind. I often get the “aren’t you frightened/scared/worried?” I have never had a bad experience in almost 40 years of intermittent travel around the globe. A smile and knowing how to say “hello and thank you” in the language of where you are helps ease any tension and I also agree the media has a lot to do with the fear out there by mainly focusing on the small amount of bad in most of the world.
    Of course saying that you have to take into account the really dangerous war torn areas and the radical extremists and obviously stay away from those areas. But apart from those places there is still a huge part of the world waiting to be explored. Looking forward to hearing about where you are next planning to go to Jill, I say just go for it while you are youngish! By the time you are 70+ and 80+ travel does become a bit tiring and we can still travel but not bite off so much at a time now…
    As you know I love Napier and those sunset photos of Laos are so magical.

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  4. great comparison here – very deep reflection on the trust and fear thing (really good) – also I love the art deco pics – and the shot of you and John dressed up was charming (esp. hat/gloves) – also – by the time I got down to “want to catch a plane” I sure did want to say “wait for me…” ha!

    for us- well for about a decade+ all of our traveling was to see family – it was actually irritating and annoying because sometimes traveling within the States is just as expensive as going overseas and so we found that for yet another year – our traveling time and funds were spent to cross country to visit family or to go to funerals, weddings, etc. super boring and not as exciting as culture rich stuff like with Laos.
    But that has started to change for us – and living on the east coast helped because we can sometimes drive for a few events – and well, to answer your question –
    travel is important to me…. because it breaks up the routine and keeps life mentally fresh and richer – even if it is to see family again and again – ha! and even tho you did not ask – my least favorite thing about traveling is how tiring it can be physically. Peace

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    • Thanks for your generous comment, Yvette. The fatigue would have to be my least favourite thing, too. Here, a trip from the North Island to the South Island can cost as much as flying to Australia. I guess when it comes to visiting family and friends in this day and age we have to do what we have to do. Actually, it was visiting our son and daughter-in-law while they lived in Bangkok that sowed the seed for going to Laos.

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