I have to say, things didn’t start out all that well.
It was about 95 degrees when we stepped off the plane. The immigration queue was not what you might call efficient. No one was there to meet us at the airport. After we’d dumped our four suitcases in an untidy tumble of luggage at the Hoxieng guesthouse and spent a brief spell lying underneath the air conditioner and gasping like landed fish, we ventured out again in search of food.
Half an hour later we were sitting outside at a table for two on a platform overlooking the Mekong. The setting sun was gilding the brown river with golden glimmer. Laughing boys splashed in the shallows below us. Two monks in bright orange robes walked down a track and climbed into a long, narrow, boat. One of them overbalanced as he tried to start the engine and almost fell into the water. Out in the middle of the river a fisherman stood steady in his own slim boat with a fishing net streaming through his hands in one long line. On the far bank, green hills clambered atop one another.
It should have been undeniably charming. And I was not at all charmed.
After we made the decision to move here in February, every time I met someone who’d been to Laos and told them about our plans, they all basically said the same thing: “You lucky girl.” But sitting by the Mekong on Monday night with my skin prickling with sweat and my feet swelling out of my shoes, I didn’t feel lucky. I felt exhausted, famished, and miserable. I felt trapped. I felt utterly pathetic at the prospect of being the only person in the entire world who actually hated this place. And when I remembered that we were here to stay for two years, I felt like drowning myself in the Mekong.
I looked at the table. My hand lay opposite Mike’s with just our fingernails brushing. It was too hot to touch.
“I’m going to miss holding your hand,” I said mournfully.
Across from me Mike was mostly silent in the fog of his own fatigue.
“It’s going to be OK,” he said.
I highly doubted that. At that precise moment I also doubted that I was going to be able to get through dinner without degenerating into an inconsolable, bawling, mess. So I chewed on my cheek, stared at the muddy river, and concentrated on keeping the tears corked.
But then the food came. And with every bite of chicken sautéed with chili and ginger and basil, or fried river fish topped with crispy garlic, I felt a bit better. And when we paid the bill and stood up to wander as the sun dipped below the horizon and the heat eased just a little, I felt a bit better again. And when we walked down a shaded brick alleyway, past a temple standing silent in the dusk, and stopped to pat a puppy that was beside himself with excitement to be the recipient of attention and affection, I smiled. And when we ambled through the night market under a sky sprinkled with pink clouds and I saw that, contrary to my expectations, the market was full of gorgeous things besides elephant slippers, I felt the first tiny stirrings of excited. (By the way, if anyone out there knows why people here in the tropics have decided to specialize in making warm padded slippers, please email me).
Since then there’s been a mélange of other moments – congealed pigs blood, house hunting on the back of a motorcycle being driven one handed by a woman whose other hand was cushioning the head of the sleepy toddler strapped to her chest, monks receiving alms, lychee and mint daiquiris, a violent thunderstorm, and cheap baguettes. And I’ve started to learn my first Laos words.
But that all came after that first night and my first hesitant steps up the trail leading out of the deep emotional chasm I tumbled into on the banks of the Mekong. For by the time we crawled into bed that night under the blessed benediction of a working air conditioner, I no longer wanted to drown myself.
I guess we all have to start somewhere.