Laos: The Art of Backpacking Your Own Ever-Changing Territory.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend about being able to recognize how much you’ve grown as a person through revisiting old essays/projects. We both agreed that it’s just so tempting to go back and start arguing with our past selves. As I thought about that conversation over my morning coffee, I felt inspired to read through a specific draft from my old blogging days, and just as I expected, there were so many obvious points that I overlooked, or simply neglected. The first half of this is the unedited draft from 2019, and the second half is a new response from this morning. 

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March 23rd, 2019:

When I was 12, I joined a bowling league. After a few months of determination and practice, I finally won a trophy – my first trophy ever. It was decorated with flames and plastic bowling pins, and it looked like Guy Fieri personally designed it. The title “Highest Handicap in the League” was engraved on the little plastic plaque and I didn’t really know what that meant until I showed my Dad. He let out a chuckle and said “Oh my god.. they actually gave you a trophy for that…?”

 

IMG_2199THEY DID and I gladly accepted it with the biggest smile painted across my face. After the realization that maybe bowling wasn’t my calling, I decided to close the aspiring professional bowler chapter of my life. On my first morning in Laos, I went out into the common area with my cup of coffee and immediately joined a conversation with folks from my dorm. They were all slightly hungover, and they started telling me about their wild night out – at the bowling alley on the outskirts of town. Well, life works in mysterious ways and I unexpectedly found myself reopening that chapter a 13 years later… in Laos. I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I arrived in Laos, but I was NOT expecting to revisit that bowling chapter.

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Laos, along with the rest of South East Asia will always have a spot in my heart. I feel more at home in countries such as Laos, Vietnam or China than I’ve ever felt back in the USA and  I find myself being hit with nostalgia when I least expect it. Today’s overwhelming feeling of nostalgia hit me while I was moving my sourdough starters to new jars. I’ve been living/working in Boston for about 3 months now and I’ve learned that making sourdough bread is the best way to combat my struggles with patience/impulsivity. 

IMG_2386One of my biggest flaws is that I’m CONSTANTLY comparing myself to others. I’m comparing everything from looks, careers, life choices, hairstyles- absolutely everything. Being in Boston has been a struggle due to the fact that I’m going to be here for a long time. Boston has a very competitive atmosphere and I have no clue where I’m going to fit in. People will know more about me than the usual transient, facade I usually dress myself up in. There’s a lot more to me than just being “Aimee from DaLat?!” or “That girl who lived here for three (sorry, Oregon- I miss you) months.” That’s been my life for the past few years.

IMG_2221As I was transferring my starters to their new jars, I started thinking about Laos and how much I regret not spending more time there- I miss the atmosphere of the entire country. Laos doesn’t feel like it’s looking to be Southeast Asia’s hottest tourism spot. Laos is (isn’t?) known for it’s hidden gems. The locals won’t drag you into their shops, and they won’t really care if you don’t buy their Larb because they knows its delicious and there will be someone else buying it within the next 10 minutes. If you travel and only chose to eat at Western-style restaurants, Laos isn’t for you.

I wandered through the same night market everynight and never found myself disappointed. The market was nestled in an alleyway with stalls on either sides and minimal room for walking. Venturing through this market required determination and a 8000Kip (.93 cents) BeerLao. The market opened around sunset and you knew it was time when the smell of burning coals and rising smoke was seen billowing out through the tarps and sheet metal roofing.

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We should all be more like Laos, let’s make a pact to stop comparing ourselves and learn how to be comfortable in our own state of being. You want to spend the next 5 years in University learning how to become a computer programmer? Go for it. You decided that school isn’t for you? Cool, same here. Just do whatever makes you happy. I hope that one day we all find someone who looks at us in the same way that I look at Laos.

 

November 17th, 2020 – 1 year, and 7 months later:

I’m currently unemployed and standing in the same spot as I was last year when I initially started this post. As I swirled the spoon around my mug, I watched the wisps of steam rise into the air and I filled my chest with the smell of fresh coffee.  I am not a fan of winter, and I’d much rather spend my days sweating under the sun at the equator than being bundled up in layers of coats here in New England. However, there are plenty of things I don’t enjoy, but I’ll always makeIMG_2397 an attempt to find a silver lining. There’s nothing better than a damn good cup of coffee on a winter morning and that is my silver lining. Whether I’m cozied up on the couch at home, clocked-in at work, or rushing (pre-covid) to the T, I’ll always make time for morning coffee. I couldn’t begin to tell you why, or how this became part of my everyday routine. With that being said, if you ever see me starting the day with chamomile tea – call the doctor because something is wrong. And this got me thinking…

Do you ever just stop and consider how incredibly precious humans actually are? 

We instinctually make random associations that give meaning to everything around us because we’re full of individual cognitions, a life-time worth of experiences, and ever-changing perspectives based on where we’ve been and what we’ve been through. We have certain songs that bring us to tears, we make specific dishes on special days for those we love, and we can spend hours laughing at animals doing silly things on the internet.

Sidebar: Isn’t it adorable that laughter is an innate human response? No one ever taught you how to laugh, we’re just wired to know that its a necessary form of communication.

IMG_2213That song that brings you to tears? It’s just a string of sounds we gave meaning to that happen to resonate because of some personal association. That dish you love to make is just a bunch of organic materials that simply pair well with something you’ve already experienced. I’m not saying this to belittle your sentimental comforts in any way, but as a reminder of how lovable and endearing humans actually are because of all the things we’ve experienced. We all have our own unique comforts and warm mugs of coffee happen to be one of mine. 

As this moment was happening, I felt a weight in my chest – not in an overwhelming or anxious kind of way, but in a way that I can only describe as the feeling of having a sense of purpose – a long lost sense of self. I didn’t wake up feeling any particular way, my heart wasn’t heavy, my brain felt clear, and my body didn’t feel as if every nerve was suddenly engulfed in flames. I just felt.. content?  Yet, the feeling of holding this warm mug  while standing at my kitchen counter in my chili pepper socks was enough to bring me to tears. My mental health hasn’t been the best recently, I’ve been avoiding a lot of things and I’ve been overly worried about what the next few months will bring. These emotions felt like they were put on hold, and watching the steam rise from the mug was distracting enough for me to let my guard down and BOY let me tell you, I needed that.

Anyway, you might be curious why I’m adding this to a blog about Laos so I’ll get to that now. 

IMG_2243When I was in Laos, my mental health was plummeting and I was desperately looking for a way to keep my thoughts occupied so I didn’t have to approach all those memories I refused to process. I was running from thoughts that lived within me, and throwing all my belongings into a backpack and fleeing to country with a language barrier seemed like the best way to pretend like everything was okay. I’m really good at temporarily compartmentalizing emotions, and making new friends was easy because how would they know if I was hiding something? I was able to avoid those who knew me well enough to ask why I’ve been acting strange. I kept friends at home updated with photos of myself splashing around in waterfalls, or making bracelets on a porch overlooking the Mekong Delta. See how easy it is to hide how you’re actually doing on social media? 

IMG_2292During one of my first days in Laos, I wandered around Luang Prabang gazing at all the colorful temples with their golden, tiered roofs. I stopped at Wat Xieng Thong in the main area of the city and paid my kip to go into the grounds. I wish I knew more about the temples back then because they all have their own powerful backstory, but I’ll admit that I was pretty ignorant of them at the time. I’ve spent a lot of time since then diving into that history so I’d love to go back one day with a more appreciative, respectful eye. Recently, I was reading about the history of this temple and I learned that it’s been redecorated several times by multiple different people since it was first built so there’s actually no evidence of what it looked like in its original form. Anyway, I went inside and sat down to breathe. Meditation was never really something I got into, but I sat in the back corner of the temple tucked away from those who come regularly. My chest filled with air, then I pursed my lips and exhaled. For the first time in months, I felt my shoulders relax as my spine straightened, and the muscles in my face started to soften.  I was indoors, but for a second it felt as if my entire being was wrapped in sunlight. I felt safe because I could just be. 

IMG_2281The idea that I built my walls to defend myself from others was something I was told myself in order to avoid the storms raging inside of my bones. I never wanted to push other people away because if we’re being honest, all I wanted was space to be vulnerable and open up about about how scared I was. I desperately needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. I felt my the tears begin to well, and I sat there in silence as they began to roll down my face. At this moment in time, didn’t need to make a sound, I didn’t want the world the worry because this is what I needed. I needed to sit with those storms and remind myself that I was strong enough to survive them. I like to think that the blanket of sunshine I felt was my body recognizing its own humanity, and that who I was before those events was still there – she was just scared, as anyone would’ve been. There is a certain Buddhist sutra that I read while being over there, and it found myself reciting it as if it was a song that was stuck in my head. There are several different translations and versions of it, but the one I read was this.

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’

I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.

I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.

I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

IMG_2200It is the nature of the human body – including the mind –  to grow old, get sick, and to eventually pass on. We will eventually be parted from everything that we once knew, and we must remember that we are only responsible for our actions and how we chose to navigate the world. There is a lot of privilege in being able to come to terms with this in a Laotian temple, and I understand that now so I’m not writing this as a way to preach some “Eat, Pray, Love” narrative at you, and I don’t know enough about Buddhist scriptures to explain the context behind that Sutra – I’m writing this to shed a little bit of sunshine on the dark, unsettling times that we all experience, but often refrain from addressing.

When I first started posting these blogs, I told myself that I would be transparent about ALL aspects of traveling, but I didn’t uphold that promise. Here it is, traveling doesn’t exclusively mean jumping on an airplane to some far off destination, sometimes we need to look at our everyday lives through the lens of a backpacker to recognize the discomfort in the familiar, or vice versa – the comfort in the abnormal. We travel in order to deviate from the norm and I’ve definitely learned a lot more about my past experiences this year while being quarantined within the walls of my own apartment. IMG_2260

If I could, I’d go back and rewrite all of these posts, because while I did experience a lot of beautiful moments that I’ll be forever grateful for, I kept the heavy memories to myself even though they were responsible for making the other ones so special. I owe all of these present moments to that experience in Laos, and for that reason alone, I will be forever grateful. Your body isn’t an enemy, it’s simply a vessel to explore the environment around you, even those creepy crawlspaces, ya know.. the ones that you’ve been actively avoiding since you moved in. Blast those lyrics that resonate with previous versions of yourself, dust off those shelves full of sentimental knick-knacks that would be looked at as clutter through the eyes of a stranger, and remember that these things are all just objects that inspire emotions you already have within you. It’s time to brew some coffee, roll up those flannel sleeves, and get to work.

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