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.)
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.
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.
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?