Today I walked along the Mekong until the end of the path. I passed a bunch of Lao guys sitting on plastic chairs drinking beerlao. They offered me a beer, and I took it. They got me a plastic chair. One guy had a baseball cap which said “beerlao” in big shiny letters. The umbrella we were sitting under said “beerlao” on it. The guy who had invited me gestured towards his glass of beer. “Bee-yah!” He said. Then he flexed his arm and gestured to the muscles, saying something in Lao which made everyone laugh. Then he gave me a huge smile and said “good.”” Yes!” I said. Over and over they asked where I was from, and I kept repeating “hello” and “thank you” in Lao. I asked their names. One guy told me his name comes from the French language. He said it without reverence or bitterness. Then he took the seat next to me and taught me a phrase in Lao. I repeated it at least 50 times without knowing what it meant. Then the guy next to him translated: “he mean, even though you are from California and we are from Laos, we are family.” He brought two of his fingers together and crossed them. “Friends,” he said.
They kept coming and going, and everything was so wonderfully casual. I loved the casualness most of all. How one of them would suddenly get up from his chair, without preamble or explanation, and stroll over to his motorbike. “Go home!” he would tell me. His friends barely waved goodbye. A few minutes later, someone else would pull up, and beer would be poured for him, a chair pulled out. None of it was scheduled, we were just an island of beer and plastic which people came and went from. When I finally stood up, pointed to myself and said “go home,” everyone just nodded and went back to their beer.
Why do I look for these types of situations when I travel? Why does it feel so important? I guess I have always felt a certain sense of alienation even in the town where I grew up, among my closest friends. Not all the time, but there are moments when the bar down the street feels like another country, when people say things that I really don’t understand, even though they are speaking English. I think this is in some ways a universal dilemma, an existential one: we are fundamentally alone and we want to connect, we want to be accepted into a group, but we fear it will be impossible–the group appears to be closed. Travel can be seen as a metaphor for normal life, or more accurately, a hyperbole. In travel we really are alone, we really don’t know what anyone is saying. “Getting in” with the locals-being accepted into a group we are not actually a part of-seems to remind us of this fundamental rift, and in some way heals it, if only metaphorically.