On Wednesday Mike spent the day in the field, visiting a school construction site in a village three hours outside of Luang Prabang. And, in an effort to escape the drills and tile cutters right outside our guesthouse while remaining within the therapeutic reach of an air conditioner, I spent the day working in his office.
It was blessedly quiet, and I focused properly on writing for the first time since we arrived. I focused so well, in fact, that it was 2:30 in the afternoon before I realized I was hungry, and that I had a choice to make.
I could – like the sensible and well-traveled adult I supposedly was – leave the office, go across the road to the noodle stall Mike had pointed out to me just that morning, and get myself something to eat.
Or I could search the office for the almond-stuffed honey-coated dates that Mike’s brother, Carl, had thoughtfully posted to us in Alaska three weeks previously. Carl procured these dates in Afghanistan, we carried them from Alaska to Laos, and then Mike had taken them to the office so that he could use them (carefully rationing them out one or two at a time) as gifts for the district governors during his sojourns to the field.
Mike was supposed to be back around five, I reasoned. I didn’t want to fill up noodles now. I could wait.
So I found these well-traveled dates. I ate two of them. I told myself that they were really what I’d felt like eating all along. I worked very hard to completely ignore the fact that:
(A) They so were so not at all what I felt like eating; and
(B) I had essentially just decided that I would rather go hungry than leave Mike’s air conditioned office to venture across the street and seek to make myself understood in yet another new restaurant while ordering more unfamiliar fare; and
(C) I was pretty sure that A + B = TOTAL CROSS CULTURAL COWARD.
By 5:15 I was ravenous and Mike was still not back. When I called him he sounded tired and frazzled. They were still about an hour and a half away, he said. He’d meet me back at the guesthouse and, by the way, could I bring his work computer back with me?
How, I wondered after I had hung up the phone, did one go about catching a tuk tuk to Hoxieng from Mike’s office? I knew it could be done – Mike had done it many times – so I figured the staff downstairs might have the answer to my question.
I think the woman on the front desk would have, too, if she had spoken any English. But, round and smiley, she just jumped up hastily when I tried to ask for instructions and scuttled into the finance office.
I followed her in, smiling at familiar faces but only able to remember one name out of seven. They all knew who I was though, and they all seemed rather concerned at the thought of me catching a tuk tuk alone.
There was a hushed and hurried conference, and then the woman from the front desk left the room and went into yet another office.
“No need,” said Kaileah, the young woman whose name I could remember. “She will get someone to drive you.”
“No need,” I repeated in response, increasingly perturbed by the disturbance my ignorant self was creating in an office full of busy and hard-working people.
I followed the first woman out, intent on preventing her from commandeering someone to ferry me home, but it was too late. One of the admin staff was already standing up from behind his computer and searching for car keys.
“Really,” I protested. “I am happy to catch a tuk tuk, it is just that I do not know whether to catch one from the street, or how to call one. But Mr. Michael told me it would cost ten thousand kip.” I pulled the money out of my pocket and waved it in front of them as proof that my husband, the big boss, had decreed it permissible that I make the journey from the office to the guesthouse unchaperoned and alone. That Mr. Michael had definitely not envisioned staff time and organizational resources be devoted to taking me home.
No one looked convinced.
There was another staff conference in Lao, and when it ended I could see the matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
“I am finish. I go to town now, on motorbike. I drop you,” Kaileah said.
The before we left LA someone had asked me whether we’d get around by motorbike out here.
“I’m conflicted,” I’d said. “I know motorbikes are practical, and they’re fun. But they’re dangerous, there’s just no getting around that. No, I don’t think I’ll be riding motorbikes.”
That was then, and this was now. And now, the polite and culturally appropriate thing to do was clearly to smile my thanks and accept – even though that meant a ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike, carrying two computers, and not wearing a helmet. So, since the need to escape causing further disruption suddenly felt much more pressing than my need to escape potential brain damage, I smiled my thanks and accepted.
How quickly things can change – and not just with regards to my stance on riding motorbikes.
In the blink of an eye I’ve gone from someone who typically goes to bed at midnight and gets up at eight to someone who goes to bed before ten and gets up about six. From someone with a job, an office, and not enough time on my hands, to someone whose husband has a job, an office, and not enough time on his hands. From French fries to rice. From cold to hot in weather, and from hot to cold in the shower.
I used to think I loved it. Now, I think I mostly want to love it.