This is a draft that has been sitting on my computer for a while. I don’t consider it anywhere near finished, and I don’t think it’s on a subject about which I could ever capture the feelings involved well enough to think it is finished. Still, it was time to post something about it.
For any semi-regular reader of Paths Unwritten, you might have noticed that I slowed down and then stopped the normal journal-style posts around late 2012, my crossing into Laos in October being the last one. Other posts out of sequence like photo challenges, The Bangkok Days, and others followed, but I didn’t continue the story.
This post leads me into not only into Laos, but into a few months that were emotionally devastating not just for me, but for so many people I’ve cared about for a long time. That is the short version of why the story essentially stopped at the Laos border, because I kept putting off having to write about that time. And whether or not I can ever do all involved justice, it’s time to move forward from 2012.
feelings arrive too soon,
waiting for thoughts
that often come too late.”
― Dejan Stojanovic
I was going further than ever before. Luang Namtha was only a stopover to the next one, Muang Sing, a small grouping of buildings that passes as a town. I had chosen it strictly for its remoteness. Its presence as a miniscule dot on a map only a stone’s throw from the China border. But, I was told at the dusty lot Luang Namtha called a bus terminal that I had some time to pass before the ride to Muang Sing left. So, I headed into the town to maybe find some food and wifi.
That was when word came. On opening my iPhone’s Facebook app (since I wasn’t travelling with my normal computer), my inbox was filled with messages from friends from back home, either telling me to call other friends, or telling me the news directly: Jeff, my best friend across a decade, had died.
It wasn’t unexpected, but it was shocking and so deeply saddening. He had been fighting osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, for nearly 3 years. I had been there with him three years before when he first found out about the small discoloration in a single bone that would, after everything he did to fight it, end in this. And I was among the first he told the truth to. In the time since, I had seen his condition deteriorate slowly, but I hadn’t been there for the worst of it in the last year. And in that moment of finding out, I broke down in tears, even more so since every attempt I had made to call him in the past weeks had not worked.
Suddenly the excitement of travelling to the most remote place I’d ever been lost any importance. I wrote back to some of the friends to find out more details and also to his sister, who I’d known for some time. But, also in that moment, I was relieved that I was on the road, rather than at work in Bangkok or in Michigan. Travel requires a talent for detachment and for moving on. It forces you to do so. My bus was leaving soon and there was nothing to be done from Luang Namtha.
This bus ride to a town only 60 km away was my first taste of the nerve-wracking Laos mountain roads. What should have been a 45-60 minute drive on any regular road instead took us over two hours of rumbling, sliding, and stopping to let everything from makeshift family cars to stray chickens pass. The local bus I was on had more goods than people taking up its seats and the few people there seemed genuinely amused to see me riding along with them.
One of the most interesting things while riding through this road was seeing the completely independent villages standing along the way. Almost uniformly built on ground cleared of all grass and greenery, these stilted, wooden villages stood on sandy basins. Their naked children, chickens, and pigs ran as freely as the sands beneath their homes.
Still most of this trip was spent peering out the window in solitary reflection. Jeff and I, many years before, had made the plan of returning to New Orleans to live after a summer working on Mackinac Island. The diagnosis of cancer that summer had seen to the end of that dream. But, a few months before, when speaking about the break from work in Thailand I was currently on, we had discussed me returning to Michigan and taking a road trip to New Orleans. It was only mentioned in passing a couple times after that, but that we never followed up on and that it was a harsh realization it could now never happen sticks with me to this day.
Headphones in my ears the rest of the way, I tried as best I could to tune out the obscenely high-pitched Thai-Lao music and just focus on whatever came to mind.