It hadn't occurred to me until after I’d gotten an early evening bus to the transit center in P’lok, taken an early bus to Udon Thani the next morning, caught another bus to Nong Khai in the afternoon and checked into Mut Mee Guesthouse /restaurant and community center that evening, where I observed a young man inviting his peers at the next table to go to a party that night, that I was now 50 years old.
I wrote myself some quick reminders of how I wanted to live this next stage while waiting for a quick boat trip up the Mekong River the following evening. I’d had a great bike ride to Salakaekoo, a spiritual sculpture garden and was feeling connected and alive. 50 is a milestone for many, but for me it also reflects over 40 years of living with a chronic incurable medical condition. I reflected back on my adolescence, when my substance addled brain was convinced that I wouldn’t make it to 40 years old. There was some rationale to that, many Type 1 Diabetics (T1) will have reduced life expectancy or suffer profound complications ranging from depression, to loss of limbs or kidney failure. I observed my own pattern of continual singleness and the desire to push myself into situations that “the establishment” would consider unwise- and the great learning that resulted from those adventures. Despite not having a traditional career, I’ve managed to save some money. Overall, things are good.
Resting in my confidence, I developed a few guidelines to use as a map for this next stage: reduce the shimmy of fat but stay loose and flexible. Steward the resources and invest in activities that cultivate your brain. Know that you are now at the peak of a bell curve, how long this will plateau onward is unknown. Live strongly and wisely each day. I hit the border to Laos the next day, eschewing the tourist mini-vans for the local transport.
After spending a day, a party, and a night with Mark and Nancy, I was on the plane to Luang Prabang.
This ancient city was the seat of Lao royalty and the capital until the communist takeover in 1975. It is situated on an projectory at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers; there are temples scattered throughout the old city. And amidst the hubbub of traveler ambiance, I realized that I was lonely. I’d planned to stay in a budget place where I could meet fellow travelers, but as I slipped on a rotting piece of fruit at the entrance and noted the pile of whiskey bottles near the door it became apparent that this wasn’t the place for me.
I ended up as the only guest in a small place at the center of town, paying more than my budget. Mind you, the room cost $25 a night with hot water, TV and air conditioning. As I explored the area on the first day, I was struck by the paradoxes of existence- guesthouses were prolific, the main tourist streets were cluttered with towering dry erase signs advertising the various tours, the logo-clad wait staff stood at the sidewalks waiting for the evening diners. At the same time, the kids were picked up from school, the dinners were shared on the living room floor and the locals watched the parade of foreigners meander down the streets each night.
The reality of this current situation- traveling alone and in a country where my language acumen is limited- leads to a well worn path into the recesses of my internal dialogue. There are times when this is a happy and contented place and others when it is a tormented litany of self-doubt and isolation. We all go back to our childhood, but alas I have memories of being ostracized and ignored by my classmates at school because there was something “wrong with me”. I find the lonely times are dangerous; holding a secret longing being invited and included. The best way to soothe that malcontent is to get moving. I’d picked up an excellent map of Luang Prabang in Vientiane, so in the early part of morning I rented a one-speed bike and headed off across the bridge to explore the place where tourists don’t usually go.
As I bumped my way through dirt roads, I was haunted by the fact that—if something went wrong—I could be in a really bad situation. Laos has one of the worst health care systems in the world, my contacts in Vientiane didn’t know much of my plans and I was barely able to communicate with folks in this part of the town- let alone convey that I was a T1 and wore hard contact lenses. The thought became a bit obsessive, holding me captive in circulating and destructive rumination for the early part of the morning.
The air was humid, breezy and punctuated with the occasional shower: perfect weather for a tropical bike ride. I stopped by a small micro-enterprise village where the local silk weavers and paper makers crafted, climbed up one of the temples on the way where a couple of boys looked at me in a shy and mischievous way.
As I returned to the road, they tossed a small rock down the steps behind me. The stone settled just a few steps above me and I looked up and shook a finger at them, trying to laugh it off. I stopped by a small stand for a fruit drink and overhead the shopkeeper answer her daughter’s question with “kon dee-o”. Person alone.
As I hit the main road, I thought that I’d overshot the intersection on my planned loop and backtracked, the reversed again when I was certain I was now heading in the right direction. On the paved road, girls were riding their bikes to school with neat button down shirts and paa-sinh (Laotian sarongs) with a friend riding and texting sidesaddle on the back. The motorbikes, trucks, bicycles, dogs and pedestrians continued their intricate road dance prevalent throughout most of Southeast Asia. I stopped for lunch of fried rice and drank the entire water pitcher on the table.
Feeling refreshed, I got back on the bike in the relative languor of the mid- afternoon with my planned route back to the old city firmly planted in my mind. However, in the throes of a transition from the dirt to the pavement, my bike hit an edge and I was thrown into the unusually quiet street. I thumped my fist to the pavement in frustration, then assessed the damage: a shallow, two inch abrasion to the underside of my arm below the elbow, a bit of handlebar covering scraped off, a dented kickstand. Trembling in recovery of both mind and body, I cleaned up the seeping blood from my road rash with the complimentary Lao Airlines pocket from the purse. I noticed that all was quiet around me; no one checked in. I coagulated for couple of minutes and got back on the bike, trying to ignore the throbbing of the wound and the sound level of the berating self-talk. I was determined to continue.
My next planned destination was the Temple of Peacefulness, located at the peak of a small hill on the south. I made my way up, stashing the bike at the bottom near the monk’s residences. I removed my shoes and entered the temple sanctuary, where I knelt before the image of the Buddha and the photos of the deceased and venerable monks of this temple. I completed the requisite three renditions of “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa. Honour to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the fully Enlightened One”. I sat back on my heels in silence, only then feeling the crushing weight of loneliness, anxiety and relief from the accident. A few tears emerged and I tried to clear my mind of the physical and mental burdens. The words, “You are never alone” came to me.
Seconds later a delicate breeze wafted in through the temple windows, cooling my overheated self. The screech of the cicadia and the aroma of the plumerias chimed in. I sat in peace for a while, regrouping and reflecting on all the elements of the internal and external worlds. I got back on the bike and headed on one more errand to go to the silver shop to purchase a birthday present. I found my way back for a shower, a bandage and a rest before a late dinner. I was too depleted to consider the river kayaking trip that I’d researched the night before and absolved myself to meeting with some Lao English students for some practice and go to a museum on my last day before an early morning flight the morning following.
It’s at times like this-- a near miss, confusion about location, a brush with our own fallibility and vulnerability—that makes me question the wisdom of this self-imposed journey. As Sally Bramstead mentions in her engaging memoir of her epic battle with debilitating depression, “Shoot the Damn Dog”, research has proven that isolation and rumination are two factors that increase levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Those influences, when combined with the challenges of living in a different culture where I don’t speak the language as a culturally abnormal middle-aged single woman—well heck--- here’s a reason that I feel adrift, disconnected and teetering during the ebbs of this creative life adventure. I’m tired after weeks of travel. It was time to rest.
I finally returned a few days ago and had a nice bout of gastroenteritis to celebrate. I was welcomed home; even the neglected, thin dog in my neighborhood approached me and gave my hand a swift lick. The Director asked to stay for the entire school year—or until late March 2013—to “manage” a brand new English Program for the first cohort of 12 first graders. Despite my intentions to have reached a conclusion over the past month, I felt I had to defer for a while longer. So much is unknown as the new school year is beginning to unfold. I have a new Thai roommate sharing the house with me. I’m team teaching with a newly graduated Thai teacher that doesn’t speak English. I will be creating the new curriculum for teaching the students math and computers. The bright spot is that I am not teaching on Friday afternoons, which means I can travel more easily over the weekends.
The question remains of how I will manage to fill the longing for social interaction and community that can rectify the pervasive, low-level loneliness and isolation in this small town. Is it possible here? Will the majestic trees that line the street from school into town and the extensive bike trails in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street be enough to nurture my spirit? Will the smile of the carrot juice vendor and the bemused and supportive expressions of my compadres in the Thai aerobic dances held at the riverside park at sunset be enough to sustain my desire for community? Time will tell. I have to trust that there are unknown forces in the world that propelled me here. There are lessons to be learned from the entire range of experience, good and bad. When I was conferred with my longtime friend Carrie over whether to stay here or move on in only four months, she only said, “You will know when the time is right.” And for now, that seems good enough to keep me moving forward with the best intention for each bright and hopeful morning.