40 hours of no sleep. That’s how we started our three week high-speed jaunt across Southeast Asia. If you’ve ever wondered if the Sydney airport is a comfortable place to sleep, I can assure you it’s not. Half of that 40 hours was spent on planes, the other half, 17 to be exact, was spent bumming around the Sydney airport on a layover we were too broke to take advantage of.
My two travel companions were my island mates: the itinerary master and redhead Hunter, and the photographer and pain in the ass Mike. We already spend all of our free island time driving one another crazy, we assumed an additional three weeks probably wouldn’t kill us.
We arrived in Bangkok at one in the morning, bleary eyed, dragging our feet, and half conscious. Bangkok jolted me back to life. It exploded around us, the night lights vividly coloring the pieces of street and life it touched. Stalls spilled out from the shops they sat in front of and street carts maneuvered the tuk-tuk filled road, boasting donuts and fried scorpions. Talk pulsed persistently into each alley, dulled only by a constant buzz of music. The grime it may be sheltering only evident by the rancid and ever changing stench that slammed the senses on every turn of the corner. Did I mention this was one in the morning?
Our one night in Bangkok turned into two because of a filled train. We spent it accidently walking through a government protest and getting hassled by locals trying to sell us stuff. One tried to get Mike to buy a suit, to which he replied that it was clear with his rugged hair and grubby appearance that he was not a man for suits. The salesmen promptly countered with “I’ll give you a free haircut!”
The overnight train to the Lao border was calmer but no less loud. The seats folded down and we were given sheets to put over them. We even had the luxury of curtains we could close over. Cocooned inside, we were shook and rattled by the constant jolting of the moving train. But were nevertheless rocked to sleep by the passing Thailand country side and our somewhat jarred past few nights of sleep.
We made the rest of the journey to Pakse, Lao via bus. And then from there to 4,000 islands on a small local bus that supported three long wooden benches clammered with locals and two stray backpacking bankers from somewhere in Europe. The bus stopped midway and through the open sides, locals pushed stick meat fruits, purple sticky rice, and other food, practically forcing sales.
Lao countryside was dotted with raised houses, high off the ground by way of wooden poles with cement bottoms. There they sat protected from the constant flooding of the wet season. 4,000 islands was littered with the same style homes, that instead sat right on the Mekong river, running one after the other along its side, water pooled beneath them.
From 4,000 islands we took a bus down to Kratie, Cambodia, managing to avoid getting ripped off at the border- a success we were not lucky of at the Lao crossing. From Kratie we took an overnight bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Overnight buses are not as luxurious as the rickety train. You’re snuggled up quite close to the person beside you, at a somewhat awkward angle, unable to sit up fully without whacking your head on the ceiling.
The long, somewhat miserable bus ride was made up for in Phnom Penh where we met up with Mike’s friend who treated us to amazing homemade meals and the stellar company of her many adopted girls. Most of our time in Cambodia was spent dodging persistent tuk tuk drivers. But we did manage a side trip to the temples in Siem Reap and visits to the heart-wrenching killing fields and Teul Slang (Building S-21) Their blood soaked history rattled us and when we went to the movies later that day, I forced the boys into watching the light-hearted, care-free, no blood involved cartoon movie, Frozen.
From Cambodia we again braved an overnight bus. The best part about these kind of things is the people you meet along the way. And while we waited for our 12 o’clock bus until 3 in the morning, we made friends with a Swede, an Irish dude, and a chick from San Francisco. We played cards, talked, drank a beer, and did what we had gotten really, really, really good at: waited endless hours for transportation.
Eventually, we found our way to Vietnam where we ate Pho, explored some of the many markets, and learned from my Vietnamese friend how to cross the insane, constant movement of traffic. Which she did by walking slowly into the middle of it and holding out one slightly raised hand. The traffic moved obligingly around us: Moses parting the red sea.
In comparison to a dusty Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City was clean and well groomed. Our time there was short and we moved quickly on to Sydney (where mom graciously prevented us from being homeless by putting us up in a hotel). But what did finally wash over me in Vietnam was what I was coming from and going back to. The world sees both places as underdeveloped countries but I had just been pushed and pulled and tugged through a whirling non-stop adventure that moved at 90mph and I was going to a place incapable of going faster than a snail in the right lane. A country where you could count the taxi’s and where the population as a whole could fit into a single sky scraper in NYC.
Vanuatu isn’t just underdeveloped, it’s so far removed from the global scale that it has literally no idea what its missing and if it saw, it might self-combust from sensory overload. I’m hit- for the millionth time since I’ve been in Vanuatu- with this overwhelming feeling that I’m not sure if I want the country to change. I’m not sure if I want the kids to stop running amok in the bush, to go to school and actually try to learn, to stop climbing coconut trees and diving for Nawra. I’m not sure if I even want to be there, spoiling the magic, the pure and grounded, slow-moving world of Vanuatu.
But in the end, those thoughts are just selfish. I see what’s special about Vanuatu and I want to hold on to it, I want it to stay there, like I’m Peter Pan in Neverland refusing to ever grow up. But the problem is, the world is constantly evolving and one day, one day soon even, Vanuatu may need to be climbing the developing ladder in order to stay afloat. The best I can do is prepare my village for the next rung on the ladder.
And in the process, witness all the things that make this small, intensely unique place what it is, hold on to what I see, and pass it on, in hope that some of that magic will leak and spread, or at the very least, remain alive in some way. Where it might challenge our ideas of what it means to live, and what it means to interact with the world around us, whether that means being rocked to sleep by a clattering train across Thailand countryside, watching the sun set over 4,000 island on the Mekong River, eating fried crickets in the bustling streets of Bangkok, or even, in the blistering heat, laying across a mat in the shade of a mango tree and drifting, peacefully, to sleep.