HOW I CONTRACTED A TRAVEL BUG.
Even though I traveled fairly wide before, stretching my days riding trains across Russia and cuddling slender armchairs on international flights, I really wasn’t infected until at the end of a long stint half-way around the world I was on a slow boat on the Mekong river riding from Huay Xai to Pak Beng.
My travel companion with whom I shared a journey across Europe, Africa, Nepal and Thailand started getting the bouts of homesickness and loneliness. A couple of weeks before I lunged with relief for the wooden bench on my floating refuge for the next full day, we broke off our traveling agreement and parted ways.
This was a slow-moving dream carried on along a split in a thick jungle, a river bed filled with bright ochre-colored water. It was a fantasy of a different world absent of references to habitual sight of civilization, except the chomping claps of a diesel engine that stirred the wooden body between rapids and protruding rocks.
My feelings were torn and rolled up in an invisible yarn ball of nerves oozing with a subtle melody of ache. I looked on the passing contours of horizon covered with virgin tropical forest. It worked as an anesthetic infusing my mind with saudade rumination about something lost mixed with a sweet expectation of that special time when everything will be just right.
I was riding Mekong following a cloud of inner ambivalence. I really didn’t have a plan to get a check mark on some list or to be in a particular place; – I had a Michelin map and was curious how the landscape looks like on the border of Laos and China in Muang Sing. This is where I wanted to go.
Back then I didn’t know, nor did I care that it was an attractive spot for those who enjoy smoking opium on the cheap.
The roads were not paved and what constituted a “bus” was a Chinese made Jian truck with two wooden benches and a tarp cover.
Muang Sing was a little town of a separate universe where people looked happy to see each other. I stayed with a family that recognized the coming tide of more frequent visitors — they built a dormitory with several rooms to provide simple and kind hospitality for those seeking different frontiers.
On the way back to Udomxai I shared the “bus” with other travelers that came here to smoke opium and they seemed redeemed for their enduring of fumes and dust of the dirt transportation artery. Before I left I felt Muang Sing, I paned across the map wondering if I could go somewhere deeper into interior of the country and sink in it like a pebble in a river.
I did cast an eye on the map for a mark of a little city across the swath of a jungle buffering Chinese border before jumping in the truck. There was a thin red line supposedly indicating some kind of a connecting road.
After reaching a little village of Nateuy I decided to leave cheerful company of Israeli ex-soldier and gorgeous blonde nurse from Denmark and pull out my backpack. From here I was supposed to take a smaller road to Muang Buan Tai which seemed to be no more than 45 miles away according to the Michelin Maps scale.
— ”You are crazy Russian!” – they were screaming at me from under the covers of the bus pulling out from the middle of the dirt road running between wooden boxes of houses on the stilts. The kids ran out screaming “Farang!” similar to Thai meaning “weird”.
I noticed two women were making a crochet sticking by one of the houses and I went in that direction. I greeted them and they jovially invited me to join their company. They were talking to me but I didn’t understand much, so I just smiled.
Young man was passing by and he turned to talk to women and we exchanged greetings in English. During a conversation I told him that I was from the US but was born in Russia, to which he laughed heartily and then started talking with me in nearly perfect Russian. He spent five years in Russia before the break up studying forestry. And this was exactly what I needed – a guy who will tell me how to find a road to Muang Buan Tai.
His answer was discouraging, even though not certain: there was no road that goes through the jungle to where I wanted to go.
I thought that he may not be familiar with his country — how could Michelin Maps could be wrong? It was already the year of 2001 and the accuracy should be with the mapmaker. I stayed at his family house and in the morning a tractor took me outside the village where, the overgrown with grass one track horse cart road was splitting off.
What started there was a five days, four nights trek through the jungle with encounters of isolated villages and indigenous tribal communities. It was journey where I acquired my travel adventure fever. A part of me was awakened to the fearless curiosity, a confidence based in relating beyond the language to the heart of humanity.
I forded the river 52 times, being annoyed in the beginning for having to take off my leather Timberland shoes, until I just gave up giving a damn about them. Two nights I slept in different spots under straw huts with Aka opium growers in the forest.
I witnessed a local shaman perform exorcism while keeping himself supported with local root-infused whiskey. He was riding a crude wooden bench in our familiar reality while in his he was riding full ferocity of a raging stead of unconscious formless desire.
I was always offered food whenever my surprising trail led me. In one bigger village a family that invited me to spend a night with them, happily offered a place for me around their evening meal that included a feast of the freshly hunted forest rat.
Many of these communities were completely isolated and self-sufficient: their women were spinning threads to make fabric and there was one Aka village where women were comfortably bare-chested.
My appearance had only one of the two effects: either a gathered crowd of disbelieving onlookers studying this visiting alien or children hiding behind scrutinizing adults.
There I succumbed to the traveler’s virus of complete forgetfulness. The benevolent sickness of forgetting restraints of solid identity, a dissolution agent of space of the present moment – spontaneous, unpredictable and full of life force. Feeling supremely alive then I knew that this was to become an omnipresent draft penetrating everyday life pulling me from holding on to things towards opening more doors to new experiences.