only in nightmares

I feel bad that I don’t have as much to say about hanging out with friends and family as I do about hanging out with strangers. But, what it comes down to is when I’m with people I already know, I am content to do absolutely nothing for days. Because I’m in the presence of people with whom I am already completely comfortable, and whose presence I adore. Sorry friends, it’s not that I don’t love you or am not impressed with you. Quite the contrary.

Actually though, my time in Geneva was pretty eventful. Cassiopeia took me to several of her favorite restaurants, and the girl has fine taste. We indulged in a chill pizza and cookie and movie night. We had breakfast with Todd and Hope, very dear friends from Naples. Whom I also spent my Sunday with, on my own private tour of lovely Wheaton. I got to see the Wheaton campus and their church. We went for a drive to admire the local, so charming architecture. And for lunch and a stroll around the lake. I got to see their home and hang out with their dogs. I love how many dog friends I’ve had on this trip. Also the diversity of the people I get to see. The last time I saw Todd and Hope was in Seattle a few years ago. Traveling by hitching has definitely allowed for a broader itinerary than I could have managed by plane, bus, or train.

Cassie and I also stopped in at her family’s house and biked from Batavia to Geneva. It was a really nice visit. But I miss living with all of my ex-roommates. I love that I have the opportunity to have these moments with people I care about, but it always makes me a little sad, too. 14054448_10157361749315581_6707912444237403548_oScreen Shot 2016-09-04 at 12.20.24 AMIMG_4950
It was a bit of a hassle, getting me to the interstate. Cassie lives an unfortunate distance from both the road I took to get to Geneva, and the road I needed to get out of Geneva. She had to bring her nanny kids and half her family (thanks to all!) to drop me off on I-88. It was a later start than usual, but I’m beyond getting anxious. Everything happens, and all. I got a ride with a posh guy in his thirties. He candidly informed me that he had no license, but it was okay, because he has good lawyers, and it’s not a big deal. Well, at least he wasn’t taking me very far. Interestingly he, too, had lived in Olympia for several years. He even had an Oly tattoo to prove it. I asked him to let me off at exit 136, just before our roads split. But he told me there was an exit for my turnoff. Even better. However, despite him having hitchhiked in his youth (at thirteen!), he didn’t know what he was talking about. The ‘exit’ was literally just a fork in the interstate. He dropped me off with 65mph traffic thwushing past. Lovely. I consulted google maps, and determined that the exit behind me was closer than the exit ahead of me. So I started walking, illegally, backwards. It ended up being a pretty inoptimal on-ramp. But, I didn’t really have much choice. A couple pulled over to make sure I was okay. They approached me as if I were a wild animal; I can’t shake the look of apprehension on their faces. I wonder if they thought I was on drugs, or out of my mind, or perhaps a criminal. Regardless, it made me feel disgusting. But I’m glad to have all these miles under my belt, from Washington until here. There’s some substance to your defense of hitchhiking when you’ve traversed almost the entire width of the country.

The couple left, but were replaced pretty quickly with flashing red and blue lights. I’ve had a fair amount of police pass while I’ve been hitchhiking, and it’s always a mixture of relief and satisfaction when they just keep driving. This one didn’t. I felt calm. No quickened pulse, no anxious thoughts. He rolled down his window and I approached with a smile.
 The officer was very friendly. But he told me that hitchhiking was illegal. Which, was news to me. I had researched the hitchhiking laws in each state before I embarked upon this trip. I said as much, in the least argumentative way possible. I asked him politely about the specific laws, and he said that yes, hitchhiking is illegal on all roads in Illinois and had been for some time. This didn’t sound right to me, but I wasn’t about to argue and escalate the situation. I wasn’t being treated like a criminal, and I responded in kind. A female officer had shown up in the meantime, and she more or less took over. She ended up driving me away from the highway to a nearby mall. She had to search me before I got into the car. I was curious about what passersby made of the situation, but I wasn’t bothered. This is my third time ‘hitchhiking’ with a police officer, but the first in this country. The officer, who wasn’t much older than me, was very curious about my trip and my life, and was extremely polite about the whole ordeal. She dropped me off, apologetically, and repeatedly made sure I was alrightIMG_4958I sat on the bench outside of Macy’s for quite some time, trying to determine my next move. My first thought was to try to find a rideshare on craigslist. But there was surprisingly not much happening in the Chicago area. I looked into buses to Indiana (after thoroughly re-checking the hitchhiking laws in both Indiana in Ohio). There was a $6 Greyhound bus from Chicago, IL to Gary, IN. I’ve heard only bad stories about Greyhound experiences, but, it seemed like a decent option. It was nearly noon, and I felt more than a little defeated. I was thinking of heading back to Geneva and starting again the next morning. That was my plan, until I realized that I am not so easily defeated. This is hitchhiking, this is traveling. Things happen and you figure them out and you keep going. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with going backwards, in fact that was one of my favorite experiences with the Birthrighters, when we had one of two failed hitching days in Europe. We spent a bonus night with our CS host in Salzburg (whom we were all slightly in love with), and started fresh in the morning. And not that I would ever be opposed to spending more time with Cassiopeia. But I just felt like it was important, in this instance, for me to move forward. I’ve grown far too accustomed to my comfort zone in the past few years. I google maps-ed it, and found a bus headed towards Chicago leaving in less than five minutes. I took a bus and two trains to get to Gary, Indiana. It cost $11.

Gary, Indiana is probably the sketchiest place I’ve ever been. The eastbound on ramp adjacent to the metro station was closed. Of course. So, I shouldered my bags and walked a mile to the nearest entrance. The houses I passed looked abandoned, but I realized that they were not, in fact. Maybe people were just terrified of their neighbors. Yikes. The people were friendly enough. But back in Oak Brook I had considered sleeping here, and that was hopefully not going to happen. This was literally the worst hitchhiking location I’ve encountered. There were two separate on ramps and there was nowhere I could stand to catch traffic from both. Indiana actually has the most strict hitchhiking laws of any state I’ve been through, and I was not interested in being picked up by the police twice. In one day, no less. Also problematic was the depressingly infrequent traffic. Literally about two cars passed every ten minutes. But I had been through a lot today, and I refused to cave in to negativity. It was dusky, the weather was nice enough, and I was here. A car stopped, and the driver took me further than he needed to in order to leave me in a decent location (it’s really refreshing when people actually consider hitchability.) It was a truck stop that was closed except for truck parking. I considered spending the night here, and trying to get a lift in the morning. All of these trucks would be here for the duration of the night. But I decided instead to walk into town, get some tea and internet, and try my luck with the interstate entrance there. Portage was grand in comparison to Gary. I scanned the area for camping spaces as I walked. There were plenty of good options. This was going to be a fine night. Starbucks is not my favorite, but it suffices in a pinch. I was happy to spend a few hours there.

The sky was black when I finally left. I had scoped out a forested area just by the interstate, but upon exiting Starbucks, I noted a small grouping of trees to my right. I checked it out and decided it would do. After feeling the ground for dampness, and deeming it satisfactory, I curled up with my backpacks and laid there for awhile before falling asleep. The frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas, and the like were in full swing. The noise from the interstate sounded quiet in comparison. I was pleasantly surprised to see the rhythmic glow of fireflies illuminating my personal forest ceiling. Finally assured that I wouldn’t be disturbed by local hooligans or animals, I pulled out my silk sheet, slathered on some bug balm, and got a pretty decent night of sleep, really. That said, I was awake by 4:30. So I headed to the interstate and camped out in the grass of the Holiday Inn. I’ve never been keen on hitchhiking in the dark, and I didn’t want to take any chances of someone calling the police on me. So I made a breakfast of the madras lentils I had been carrying with me since Olympia, and waited until sunrise. I had known before I started out that I would end up camping somewhere, and to be honest, I was excited about it. I could do this more often.

I had to wait an hour and a half, the longest wait of this trip. Not so much as a stop headed in the wrong direction. Was this how it was going to be, eastern US? I was offered forty bucks for a bus ticket, which I declined, obviously. Finally, I heard a shout from behind me. There was a man saying he would be headed east in a few minutes. I thanked God and grabbed my bags. Not only was he heading east, he was driving all the way to Mansfield, Ohio. Half an hour from my destination! I settled in for a five hour ride. He was pretty quiet, and conversation was sparse. Even though I consider myself a mostly quiet person, I pride myself on being able to elicit conversation from people, particularly strangers. Hitchhiking and couchsurfing will do that for you. I was bomb at getting anyone to engage when I first started at TJ’s. But this guy I could only get excited about his three cats back home. Oh well, I’ve never minded silence. He had been in the military, and now worked on railroad signals. It just so happened that the exit where his road and mine split was the exit for Strongsville, which rung a symphony of bells in my mind. He was going to drop me at a gas station, but on the way I saw a promising sight: Rockne’s. I was pretty sure my uncle owned a Rockne’s in Strongsville, and I called my mom to check. He did, and it was possible that someone in my family would be working. She immediately called my aunt who ended up coming to acquire me. It had taken a lot to get here, but Ohio, here I am.

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if only, Adrien Brody

Finally I reached the winding mountain roads I had been expecting throughout most of this trip. Karst enveloped landscape swimming in fog. Something about the houses here struck me as much more attractive than elsewhere. It took me several hours to determine just what it was. Finally I realized it was the lack of signage and busyness. Everywhere, everywhere in this part of the world buildings are covered in beer banners (Beer Lao, Angkor, Tiger, Singha, Chang – depending on which country you are in), person-sized signs for ice cream, phone provider ads, Nescafé umbrellas. So much busyness everywhere, but these small roadside towns were completely devoid of it all. I am all for it. It’s so much more pleasant to behold the quietness of these villages.The minibus I caught from Vientiane to Luang Pranang is the nicest, newest, cleanest transportation I’ve taken yet. The driver seemed very safe to me, despite the quality of the road, despite the fact that we were driving on the edge of cliffs, and despite the fact that we passed one major wreck and one semi that had simply tipped over in a ditch into the side of the mountain.

Luang Prabang had an immediately noticeable nicer feel to it than Vientiane. It seemed smaller, and less official. I liked it already. My guesthouse very proudly offered free bananas, and I had my share. The building was old and wooden. The stairs to get to my room were so steep it almost seemed more like a ladder than a staircase. I liked my room immensely, too (despite the fact the walls were pink stained and unlovable), and that also took me a while to grasp the reasoning. Because it was my first [non-CS] room that was mine. It was as cheap as anywhere I’d seen, but this was a single room instead of a dorm. I would be taking full advantage of this fact.   I think I skipped dinner the night I arrived, but breakfast was the first order of business when I awoke the next day. I sought out a local noodle soup, despite the morning being already uncomfortably warm. The main difference I noted between this soup and the countless others I have tried was the abundance of thinly sliced, ultra crispy fried garlic pieces. Which were awesome. I walked along the Mekong for a long length of the town, particularly appreciating the [french influenced] architecture and the way the buildings here fit together very snugly. It boasts a very different, quaint aesthetic to all the other cities I’ve visited so far. During the afternoon I retreated to my room and splayed myself under the fan. This particular day I bought a small tub of taro ice cream and consumed the whole thing. Not a whole lot went down during the hours nearing 100°. But I was very excited for the evening. In Vientiane all I had wanted was to watch a film. Unfortunately for me, there is not a single cinema there. Not one. How excited I was to learn, then, about L’etranger – a bookshop in Luang Prabang that shows a movie every evening. I showed up early and ordered the local mak toum (bale fruit?) tea. The film that evening was The Cobbler, which sounded really charming, until you learned that Adam Sandler was in it (only one girl knew this fact, and when she shared it we all had the same reaction). Nothing against him, it just wasn’t what I was expecting based on the description. Anyways, the act of sitting in that beautiful space with a pot of tea, watching a film was exactly as magical as I anticipated. Afterwards I popped over to the night market, but it was already in the process of shutting down. Still, I came across these tiny banana leaf baskets stacked delicately with little coconut cakes. They aren’t exactly cake: they are fried and spongy on the outside, but the inside is a gooey, custardy molten lava of creamy coconut. They are perfection.   Soo…I might have even had them again for breakfast the next day at the morning market. This market had the weirdest selection of things I’ve yet seen. There were live frogs in a giant basket, frickin thigh sized lizards both whole and chopped up (I’ve seen a lot of dead animals around, but these chopped up lizards win the gross out factor for me), seemingly innocent baskets which actually held small dead pigs, and some other unusual meats and critters that I can no longer recall. There were no other tourists at this early hour. I did some shopping for the next day’s journey up the Mekong. 

For my heat induced indoor period that day I happily occupied myself with some sketching and painting. I almost indulged in another film at L’etranger, but decided instead to tackle the night market early. There were a lot of foods I wanted to try and I opted to have a night market feast. Despite my best intentions, I could only fit about $4.50 worth of food into my stomach. Oh well, it was a very exciting experience, and I’m certainly not going to complain about being satiated for less than five bucks. Between my various courses of foods I wandered back and forth along the long strip of tents filled with amazing handiwork. The skill of people here is so impressive. I think I probably spent like four hours lost in all of the colors and patterns and delicious smells there. This has been my favorite market so far.

It was only just lightening when I started out the next morning. I walked once more to the morning market to grab fresh baguettes for sandwiches…and one more helping of coconut cakes. I bartered with a few different tuk-tuk drivers before finally agreeing on a price that was favorable to both of us. And so I bid adieu to lovely Luang Prabang.

destiny and its many faces

I’ve been unusually stressed about getting to Laos from Vietnam. I’m not sure why it seems so much more complicated than any of the trips thus far. I guess because I’ve been unable to find very clear information on the Internet. Or maybe because I’m traveling a long distance across countries, and perhaps I should’ve broken the journey into smaller sections. I dunno. Regardless, I vacillated between plans for a week.

At the end of my trek to Hang En I was dropped of in town. The ATM was finally working, and I withdrew more money than I thought I needed, just to not be in the same situation, caught without cash. I assessed my options. I knew I was only 50km from the border, and it just seemed so silly to drive east when I wanted to go west. So I strolled into Easy Tiger and asked how much they thought it would cost to get a xe ôm to take me to the border. The guy working there this time was immensely more friendly and helpful than the first day I had gone there. He recommended taking the local bus to Dong Hoi at 5 the next morning, and catching the bus to the border from there. This seemed like the best option I had heard, and I asked if perchance they had a room. They did! So I checked in and he proceeded immediately to check me out since I was leaving so early in the morning. I had a meal there since I actually had money now, and I spent most of the evening catching up on writing.

I awoke at 4:30 and went to wait for the bus. As I was waiting I started reading the sign about the local bus. First, the bus I wanted wasn’t until 5:30. Second, there was another at 6:00 and another at 7:10. Did I really need to take the earliest bus? To the iPhone! I researched my options, and it looked like buses headed from Dong Hoi to the border every hour in the morning. And the bus from there to Vientiane wasn’t until the evening. Sweet! More sleep and free breakfast it was. I went back up to bed and came back down at the more reasonable hour of 6:30. I had my tea, fried egg, and baguette, and then went once again to wait for my bus. The guy next to me, who I assumed worked at Easy Tiger, struck up a conversation. We talked all the way onto the bus. He informed me that my travel plans were pretty unlikely to work out. He usually arranges trips for people to Vientiane, and I would probably need to leave from Dong Ha, where coincidentally he was going as well. He made a phone call for me and assured me there was a bus to Vientiane leaving Dong Ha at 12:30. So I would tag along with him and he’d deposit me at my bus. We proceeded to converse for the ninety minute ride to Dong Hoi. Come to find not only does he work at Easy Tiger, but he’s the co-owner! As well as being in charge of the local eco-tours and the wild animal refuge center. His name is Hai, and he is a really cool individual. We both agreed we were happy our fallen through plans had inexplicably changed the course of our respective days. He invited me to have breakfast in Dong Hoi and proceeded to pay for it, as the Vietnamese do. I went with him while he did some shopping for his businesses and then we jumped on the bus to Dong Ha. Which he also paid for. It was another couple of hours before we arrived. He took me to his friend the travel agent, and his friend quickly put me on the back of a xe ôm. A far too quick thank you to my new friend Hai and I was speeding off towards the bus that was waiting for me to leave. This is the point where the magical enchanting morning changes. Should’ve stayed in Vietnam. I was tempted.

I am currently on the most questionable bus I’ve ever taken. It’s a sleeper bus like the one I took between Hanoi and Phong Nha. But three quarters of the back is packed full of stuff. Lots of boxes, quite a few blankets, some random luggage. As far as I can tell there are eight other passengers, all from Vietnam or Laos, and fourish guys operating the bus. Like on all sleeper buses you are required to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag. In fact, they wouldn’t let me back until I had tied the bag. But despite the strictness concerning footwear, the crew is smoking as if it’s not an unusual thing. We’ve been watching this show that seems to be a competition of sorts of various couples trying to sing duets the most romantically. The crew is enthralled by it and have had heated discussions about various couples. I find this hilarious. These grungy guys all into the ooiest gooiest lovey singing you could imagine. Anyways, all of this seems a bit off to me. I’ve had a lot of thoughts running through my head. Like is this an entirely legal situation going on here? and if so, if this bus gets stopped, am I getting busted along with everyone else? and am I less likely to get through the border with these guys? or is this what a sex trafficking ring is like? Is this the time I’ve finally trusted too far?

The actual border crossing was where it really hit though. We were motioned to get out and the driver made a stamping sign with his hand. I followed two Vietnamese guys and we walked about a kilometer down a sun heated highway. I very decisively took my backpack with me; no way was I getting separated from my stuff. No way was I leaving it behind on this sketch bus. I wondered why we had to walk, and whether or not I would ever see the bus again. I had another predicament as well: I had almost exactly enough money for my Laos visa, but it was divided between USD and VND. Which just doesn’t work when you are entering a country. I had tried to research whether there was an ATM at the border, but found no answer. So I cringed when the Vietnamese officials stamped my exit. Point of no return and all. What happens if you are stuck at a border without cash to go either direction? I honestly didn’t want to know the answer. The two Vietnamese guys went to a separate immigration counter and I lost sight of them while I busied myself applying for my visa.

The man working at the visa on arrival desk was one of the nicest government officials I’ve ever encountered, which bolstered me a bit. There was, in fact, an ATM (hear that Internet? There is an ATM at the Lao Bao border.) As with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam getting into Laos was really simple and non-troublesome. However, once I had my passport complete with a shiny new visa in hand (as well as my first Laotian phrase: ‘thank you’ stamped into my brain), my life was not so simple. My two Vietnamese comrades were gone. Like, definitely nowhere in the vicinity, and there was no sign of the bus. I hadn’t been told what to do, and I had no idea what to do. My heart sank. Was this my first Asian scam? It had been a really obvious one, if so, and they must have though I was so naive. I had heard so many stories of people being conned or cheated, but have managed to avoid any trouble so far. I wondered how long I should wait before finding alternative transportation to Vientiane. The man from the visa on arrival booth approached me and asked about my situation. He pointed me towards a seat and told me to wait there for my bus. Several minutes later he found me again and brought me to another of the passengers who had been on my bus. That gem of a border control man must have asked around for me. He told me to stick with this guy, because he was worried I would miss my bus. I breathed a little easier. At least I wasn’t the only one waiting here. And surely this local had more of a clue of what was happening than me? Also, if I was stranded here, at least this amazingly kind border control man would help me get somewhere. But, sure enough, our gaudy and overly packed bus appeared finally. I settled in [gratefully] for some more cheesy romance duets.

The road once we crossed into Laos was horrible. I’ve heard/read about ‘poor road quality’ and assumed that people were just being overly dramatic, but no. I just hadn’t experienced the extent of poor road quality yet. You literally could’ve ridden a bicycle faster. The large bus had to snake back and forth across the road to avoid potholes, and this with oncoming traffic doing the same. No wonder this seemingly short distance on the map was supposed to take so long.

The bus stopped for dinner and toilets at one of the usual roadside stops. The crew invited me to sit with them for dinner, which I did, hesitatingly. The locals at the restaurant appeared to never have seen a foreigner. They interacted very excitedly with my bus crew and even pulled out their iPads. Pictures I’m used to by now, but one woman walked around taking video as if to say ‘see, this is my establishment, and look what just walked in!‘ I smiled politely, but was relieved to get back on the bus. The spotlight is not my domain. I was also proposed to by one of the men on the bus, which, I’m not sure if I’ve talked about yet, but this is not unusual. I’ve had numerous proposals and declarations of love. Sometimes by the actual person, and often by an older individual for a younger man. They’ll point at the young, single male and pointedly say ‘I love you’, which is to say ‘this man loves you’. The man will smile sheepishly and I’ll perform the least awkward response I can muster, which is still deathly awkward. How are you supposed to respond to that? Anyways, if you are really desperate for a husband, Vietnam awaits you. Dress modestly and take transportation with the locals.

The rest of the journey was blessedly uneventful. Podcasts to drown out the duets and sleep before arriving around 5am at the soil of Vientiane. Thank God.

As a postscript, despite the sketchiness of the situation, I don’t regret it. And I don’t think I was conned. I had arrived in Dong Ha too late for the last bus to Vientiane, so I assume this was some sort of non-passenger bus headed that way that just took on what few passengers it could carry. In hindsight, this makes sense with a comment Hai had made to me about me maybe being lucky and still catching a bus. I suspect that if anyone else on the bus spoke English they could’ve easily explained the situation to me, but I just didn’t have any way of understanding what was happening. While I did have some concerns, if I had really felt at risk, I would’ve refused to board or gotten off. I’m not too shy for that. If your intuition kicks in, you pay attention. And that’s that. My trip to Laos was without question the strangest border crossing I’ve encountered. But I’m here, and none the worse for wear.