Imagine one of the worst fights you’ve ever had with your significant other: the aftermath, before you’ve properly made-up, that horrible tension that festers under the surface sprinkling fear into even the most unremarkable of exchanges. This was how Mark and I spent the most part of our trip.
And we couldn’t even get away from each other because of the budget accommodation. There we were, the five of us; us, the kids and the enormous elephant named fear, all squished into the tiny, beautiful budget spaces we’d carefully chosen.
Outside the rooms the landscapes were often amazing. We woke to towering crag-faced mountains jutting through delicate mists. Rivers that were actually used by villagers; children spear-fishing for their lunch and women washing themselves and their clothes in the cool part of the day.
It felt both like nothing I had ever experienced while also like something I had lived in a dream. And the dream made me feel very, very sad.
Mark couldn’t understand my sadness. I think it scared him. And he didn’t have time to be scared.
In fairness, he tried.
He tried to be patient with me when I was late, he tried to be patient with me when my anxiety set in. He sat with me while I talked about how sad I felt about the poverty, how anxious I felt not being able to cross town without getting lost and being ripped off by the tuk tuk driver. How stressed I felt bargaining in the markets. (Why couldn’t I just pay the market holders what they asked? Why? How could they be ripping me off when I could afford to pay?)
But after about three days of listening to my fears he gave up. I think he felt I was raining on his travel parade, which I was.
I think he felt I was laying my Western ideals unfairly onto a non-Western culture. And he was impatient with my ignorance.
As for me, what I wanted to hear was, “Yes, I think it’s sad too. I understand why ending up lost on a sign-less street with no map, with your children whom you’re supposed to be taking care of in the middle of Laos where you can’t speak the language would be scary. I understand that you feel that you can’t protect your children and that as you are their mother and that is your job, you feel you cannot do your job, therefore you feel helpless. I understand that you feel sad for every single child you see whom you imagine isn’t getting enough food, whom you imagine doesn’t have safe shelter, whom you imagine doesn’t have the chance of getting an education.”
And then later surrounded by the debauchery being exhibited by Western backpackers in Vang Vieng, “I understand why you are enraged and embarrassed by the behaviour of your fellow Westerners. Especially the drug fucked young men with swear words scrawled all over their torsos, toting local girls carelessly by the arm. ”
But other people don’t often say what you want them to, they say what they want to say. And they don’t always feel like you do. They feel how they do.
There was one incident that more or less sums up my fear in one hit.
Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country on earth, ever? Before I arrived there, I did not. I was ignorant. During the Vietnam War the United States dropped 260 million cluster bombs into Laos and 75 million of them did not detonate. A staggering proportion of the bombs are still in the ground right now, ground that the farmers need to use.
Even worse, 98% of the victims of said bombs are civilians and 40% of those victims are children. The Laotian people have been trying to pick their way around the bombs for more than 35 years. Around 300 people are killed or maimed by these bombs every year.
We went there with our friends; Australian scientists (a couple) who had lived in Laos for many years, and their toddler son. Alex and Mark watched a video about an eight year-old boy who had been killed by a cluster bomb, children often pick up the bombs in their search for scrap metal to sell or to play with. The parent’s grief-stricken faces blinked out from the screen. I looked away.
Next, Alex hobbled around the centre on one of the prosthetic limbs you can try on. Max got restless, I took him outside to run around. Our friend and her toddler son were outside too.
A Laotian woman was pushing a young man in a wheelchair. She stopped to talk to our friend and admire her golden-haired boy. Our friend chatted with the woman in Laos and explained to me that the young man was her 18 year-old son who had been in a motorcycle accident three weeks earlier. He clearly had brain damage from which there was no return. The mother smiled at us and told her son, who was incapable of any kind of speech, to say hello to the little kids. Max just stared while I, taking my cue from our friend, plastered a wide smile on my face and encouraged Max to say hi too. I wanted to cry. But instead I sucked it up and copied what everyone else was doing.
And that was the moment when my fear set in good and proper.
What I really needed him to say was, “I understand that your heart is breaking.”
To be continued…5 Comments