I do quite well with goodbyes.
A person who thinks herself a traveler has to be. More often than not, a place she visits is a place she leaves eventually. Saying goodbye is a necessary part of the adventure, like shoddy toilets, delayed flights and occasional homesickness. It’s just part of the experience.
I do even better with goodbyes and see you next times.
There’s nothing like the promise of returning to quell the ache of parting. It’s hopeful, and distracts from the impending jolt to one’s reality brought about by a stamp to your passport and a flight home – all too suddenly, the foreign scenery that has become the backdrop to your life in the few days, weeks or months of your trip, along with the characters that made it a most memorable experience, are taken away and replaced with the familiarity of your hometown, old friends and family. Somehow, the possibility of coming back, of being able to come back to the places you once visited, brings comfort.
And the best part is it would only take a stamp on your passport and a plane ticket, too.
We spent our last day in Luang Prabang holed up in a café by the Mekong River. We had to check out of our guest house before lunch, and the unbearable afternoon heat made one last stroll through the town’s quaint streets impossible. By then I had already grown accustomed to the slow and steady rhythm of life in this historic town of PDR Laos, which officially means the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, but is also known as Please Don’t Rush Laos – a joke that’s more than half-meant, and more than half-true.
So rush we didn’t. What is a sense of urgency? It was surprisingly easy to shrug off five years of ingrained corporate mentality with the help of Lao sausages and a lime shake, a drink I ordered nearly every time we had a meal. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and I wonder now if it might have been laced with opium resin. By the end of our stay in Luang Prabang we had spent four days doing…well, not a lot, really. I would wake up early enough every morning, a little after dawn, and would look out from the beautiful French-inspired windows of our room, go downstairs and head out to one of the outdoor tables by the Mekong River to have breakfast, IU’s “Peaches” playing in my iPod. Waking up early, breakfast, music in the morning – a string of words I am unaccustomed to using when I describe my frantic mornings in the city. Sleep is deep and waking up is easy for those who fall into slumber after a day of doing what they love, methinks.
On our third day we woke up even earlier to catch the daily alms giving ceremony. The lens on my camera had fogged up after being kept in an air conditioned room overnight and brought out to the streets at dawn. It left me with pictures that had an almost poetic mist to them, tempering the monks’ bright orange robes with a soft glow. After the ceremony we found ourselves walking behind a group of ladies lugging around the goods they sold, and a random turn into a tiny alley led us to the town’s local market. Fresh vegetables, spices, the customary French baguettes, and sampaguitas, reminding us of home – it was a delight to the senses, as is usually the case with a trip to any local market.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang’s streets are lined with numerous temples, and we visited a few, but my favorite was a nondescript one along a lonely side street. It stood across a tiny, quaint-looking café that never opened (we always passed by to check), and beside it was a joint called Ikon Club, with a sign that had an illustration of a female and male centaur – it too never opened. The temple, Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam, was surrounded by an imposing, almost fort-like white brick fence, parted in half by a flight of steps which led to a charming, if slightly unkempt garden. The place was empty and quiet when I visited, so much so that I felt I had to hold my breath as I peeked through the inside of the temple, looking past the old and intricately carved pillars until my eyes found the statue of Buddha, golden, sitting in meditation, its height nearly reaching the temple’s ceiling.
We spent our days in Luang Prabang with ease and in a slow, steady pace, not unlike the 2-hour boat ride we took along Mekong River to get to Pak Ou Caves, which held a hundred Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. The ceaseless noise of the boat’s engine lulled me into simple contentment – there was nothing else I would’ve wanted to be doing at that moment, sitting there in silence because it would’ve been too difficult to talk over the rumble of the engine. On our last day in Luang Prabang, sitting inside Saffron Café, all at once it dawned on me – I felt our trip coming to an end. The days had gone by so leisurely, so flawlessly. Luang Prabang had seduced us corporate sellouts, power-hungry yuppies, Entitled Youth Incarnate into the simple life, into unassuming generosity and uncomplicated happiness. But the engine had stopped, the ironically soothing rhythm of its rumbling had ceased. All at once it was quiet and the silence a little deafening. It was time to leave.
In my earlier travels the feeling would’ve consumed me – I would come home from a trip with a nagging desire in the back of my mind, a desire to get away again and a strong disdain for my ordinary life of monthly bills and paychecks. A desire to trade in the car and the condo for an economy class seat non-inclusive of an on-board meal, on a budget airline’s delayed flight to a destination that may or may not have a travel warning, depending on how the negotiations regarding the border dispute are going.
Perhaps it was age and a little bit of maturity. Or maybe it’s part of growing up as a traveler. On our last day in Luang Prabang, as we killed time before taking the bus back to Vientiane, the doom and gloom I initially felt at the thought of our journey’s end was short-lived and instantly replaced with a sense of gratitude and yes, even happiness. I left Luang Prabang with a light heart, knowing I would miss the place, but not focusing on how I was about to leave it – instead, I was thankful I arrived to begin with. I don’t know if I can ever go back – it would be impractical to, there is so much of the world left to explore. And perhaps it would be best to remember Luang Prabang as I had once experienced it – in my head it will be an unchanging place, happily existing in all the unassuming glory I had glimpsed of it once, ignorant of the years that will pass and the changes that it will face in reality, because towns never stay the same.
Travelling is perhaps a lot like taking on a lover - you have an amazing, unforgettable time for days, weeks, maybe months if you’re lucky. Sometimes you will leave reluctantly, sometimes a little more willingly, but you will leave either way, knowing it was never meant to last. More often than not the memory is pleasant afterwards, and in your head, however many years pass and however much you change, he remains the same in your memory, perhaps completely detached and different from who he has become in real life, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the moment you shared, stretched unending across time, infinite and unending in your memory, precisely because it ended.
Travels and love affairs are both fleeting and forever that way, I guess, in all their paradoxical glory. I’ve never looked at goodbyes the same way again.