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General Living

We arrive in Stung Treng after a three hour drive from Banlung, northeastern Cambodia. Seven of us are packed into the taxi, bouncing along what must be one of the worst roads in the country. Forty-five minutes later we’re in a dugout wooden boat, a motor attached precariously to the rear, sputtering slowly north through the Mekong to the Laotian border and the massive black cloud that seems to hold sentry.

After half an hour, the engine cuts out. I look at Dean, the tripping English lunatic I seem to have befriended, and he does the only thing one can when stuck in the middle of the Mekong, about to face down a lightening storm- he offers me a smile. After a few minutes, the engine starts and we sputter forward before it quits again. I turn around to look at the passengers behind me and notice a Khmer man standing, carefully balancing in the boat as he waves his mobile phone in the air. He says something in Khmer and the boatman starts the engine. We inch forward and the engine cuts out. The man continues waving his cell phone in the air and after half a minute or so, a broad smile crosses his strong square face and I know he’s found a signal. We wait there as he makes a call to his wife or girlfriend or, more likely, the border officials we’re on our way to see (and whom we’ll undoubtedly have to bribe). He finishes the call quickly and the motor starts without hesitation, shepherding us into the rain cloud that erupts just before the Laotian border, heading to the land of a million elephants/irrelevants; the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. I’m wet, I’m cold, and I’m covered in mud. Perfect.

We drive for an hour or so after crossing the border to an area known as The Four Thousand Islands, eventually landing on Don Det after yet another boat ride. I follow the tripping lunatic, Dean, to a paradise of lackadaisical leisure- Mr. B’s Bungalows. Water buffalos actually roam the grassy patches in front of each hut here at Mr. B’s. simultaneously providing a sense of the outlandishly exotic and a low-maintenance lawn mowing service.

The morning routine makes every day seem wonderfully similar: the sputter of motors drifting in and out of my half-awake, fully-confused state of mind; roosters crowing to urge me from a bumpy mattress nestled beneath a mosquito net punctuated by gaping holes; a breeze drifting through the wooden planks that make up my temporary castle- a hut on the banks of a furious monsoon-season Mekong. The humidity is slow to arrive, but when it does it strikes with somniferous vengeance. I spend the days sitting for hours on a red plastic chair, watching the mighty Mekong and all its dirty secrets floating furiously by, or walking lazily around the island, traipsing along the edges of rice paddies looking for water falls and hidden treasures.

After a week or two (Mr. B’s has a way of making one lose track of time), I decide to head northeast, with planned stops in Pakse, the weaving villages of Ban Sapahai and Don Kho on my way to Sekong Province. Sekong is presently the least-populated but was the most heavily bombed of Laos’ twenty three provinces (the ‘hmmm’ sound, faintly audible, from this page results from my contemplation of the correlation).

The morning of my departure, I sit on a red plastic chair and slurp one of Mr. B’s wonderful sweet milk and coffee concoctions. It’s 7:25 a.m. and already I can hear the dull roar of several all too common makeshift motorboats- one of which will soon arrive to take me away from this place. I finish my coffee, peel my journal from the sticky yellow vinyl tablecloth, and say my goodbyes to Dean and Mr. B, one of whom I’ll see again soon, the other probably never again.

It occurs to me that this is a place I’ll never really leave. It will forever serve as a jumping off place when I wonder how I came to be the person I am and how I’ll become the person I want to be. Eventually, I’ll stop to retrace these steps I have taken through Laos. Perhaps paradise isn’t the singular static location that so many of us assume it to be, but a loosely woven collection of the moments that exist forever by surviving the fickleness of our memories. Laos has awakened me to a profound realization- perhaps the moments and days that seem nugatory to the casual observer are the ones that change the course of a life.