The feeling of being back home was there the entire stay. I never really had a plan, but when people asked, I just picked a day I’d be moving on. People kept coming up with things we had to do before I left for China. And I was enjoying everything too much to go.
Finally, it’s Monday and I feel like it’s time to start the journey. I say one last goodbye to friends and then leave with a PoP (Pencils of Promise) car, headed to a town just on the edge of where tourists normally roam in Luang Prabang. After a few beers and a second breakfast, that Lanoys orders, I start walking down the road. I peed twice before leaving, but I’m a bit worried about breaking the seal before a long drive to China.
Down the road a bit I get far enough away from houses and stop at part of the road with a steep incline. My thought is that the incline will make it easier for people to make the decision to stop for me. I skip waving at the private cars and start with a small truck they usually use here for delivering water containers. He waves me off and, even though it’s a rejection, I feel good knowing he at least acknowledged me. Next is a big red truck with Chinese lettering. I start waving plenty ahead of time to make sure he has time to think and use the hill to stop.
It works as pulls to the side of the road. I’ve been waving at people for less than 5 minutes! This is a good sign, or maybe one that my luck will run out early. I open the door, throw my stuff up, and climb my way into the cab. In Lao, I ask if he can speak it, but he waves me off. Then I ask the same in English. Neither of them is a go. Then I ask in the few Chinese words I know if he’s going to China. Immediately, his face brightens up and he confirms he’s going to China. I get excited, but remember my ride to Luang Prabamg, so I read off my a paper I printed Chinese characters and the pronunciation for telling him I won’t pay him for the ride. Before I can finish by asking if it’s alright, he waves me off with that same universal sign of “don’t worry about it”.
As we drive on the road full of construction he points down and says that Chinese people made this road. That’s about all we say for the next few hours. Of course, the beer comes back, knocking on my door, and when the traffic stops I tell him I’m going to pee on the side of the road. I half expect he’s going to just drive off with my bags in the truck, but I have all my valuables with me and I think bringing my stuff down would be a big disconnect with our trust. My instinct has felt good about this one from the beginning. Just as I finish, the cars start back up and the line in front of us is leaving in a hurry. Good thing I’m wearing my good shoes because I’m running back over the uneven debris-scattered dirt and then make a leap from the curb to get back on his truck. I am clearly overreacting because he still doesn’t move even after I get back in. He waits for some of the smaller traffic to go first before we start again.
He offers me water and a smoke. Even though I don’t smoke, I appreciate the offer. Another few hours later, he pulls off the side of the road and says in Chinese that we’re going to eat. My preparation is really coming in handy so far.
Off the truck he yells at some other trucks to line up behind him. As they get down, they all come over to join my driver. Each one of them gives me a big smile when they see me. I can tell they’re asking about me, but it’s way over my head. One of them takes an extra liking to me and gets real close to my face as he asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m from America. Again, all stuff I can understand from my studying.
At the restaurant my guy tells me to sit down at a table with a spinning glass table in the middle and only enough room for a small bowl on the edges, where it doesn’t spin. Even more come to sit and total we make about 10 people. The guy that took a liking to me and a slightly older looking guy who could be his brother sit next to me and ask me some more questions. I’m only able to pick up on a few and we just end up laughing at our lack of communication.
The food comes and one guy yells something as the rest scramble to the table. There’s tea on the edge, a bowl of steamed rice making a rotation by hand and about 10 different kind of food in the middle. I wait for everyone else to start to be polite and also to make sure I don’t offend anyone. I also researched this part of the culture and pay close attention to what In doing to not offend anyone. I think really the big ones were to wait for the eldest person to a start and never to stick chopsticks points into the bowl of rice, as it symbolizes a ceremony they do for someone who has died.
During the meal they are all telling me to get more food and specifically which ones more of. Some of them take initiative to being rice over and scoop it into my bowel. A guy next to me keeps taking things off the center and putting it into my bowl. That’s another sign of respect in the culture that I read about.
After the meal the same guy yells again and everyone gets up to leave. I guess he’s the time keeper of the group. I also read that if friends go out to dinner one will take the bill, instead of splitting it amongst each person. One of the women in the group pays, but I still ask my guy if I can contribute. He gives me the same hand wave as before.
As we load back into the truck, the guy who took interest in me jumps up to sit in between the driver and me. We look at each other, but remember there’s not much hope past the communication we’ve already gone through, so we just giggle.
After another few hours we stop over to pump what I think is water into the truck. I jump out to stretch and then the guy in the middle gives me some sweet popcorn snack. Back on the road for another few hours and now it’s starting to get close to nighttime. We arrive in Udomsai, a big stop on the road to China, and all outside of the trucks, talking in a big group, they tell me we’ll stop here for the night. We get back in the truck to drive I guess to a guest house, but we end up eating again. I’m still full from the last two times I ate!
This time I feel much more comfortable with the group, so I go through the whole routine with them. Everyone one goes up to what looks like a freezer shelf in the grocery store with tons of different kind of vegetables and raw meat. They all bicker at once as they figure out what to get. One of the guys keeps telling me to pick some, but I don’t know what half of it is and don’t want to ruin the delicate balance Chinese people try to attain each time they order a group meal. From my research before, it sounds like quite an interesting science.
Then, we sit down to eat and the two guys who seem to want to talk to me the most sit on either side. They ask me more questions and I remember some more of my vocabulary to be able to answer. He types what he’s saying on the phone in Chinese and since most of my studying was recognizing characters, I get excited as I’m able to understand the intricacies of his question. He can see my excitement, so he rushes to type more.
The food arrives and this time I am more aggressive about grabbing food. Even with that the guys on my either side and putting all kinds of pieces on my plate. Again, I’m really full as the time keeps yells to mark our departure. Outside one of the guys puts his arm around me and hanging on me, tells me something like he’s glad I’m here.
Back in the truck with only the original driver we start back on the road. We pass by the farthest part of town I’ve explored before and then leave the downtown area. I’m thinking that they’re just smart at picking a place farther away from town. He leans over to tell me something about China that I don’t understand. I just nod because I’ll be following their leads anyway.
We drive out of town for an hour and now it’s about 1030, so I’m fading in and out of consciousness. I want to be awake while this guy works so hard, but the lack of sleep and it being past my normal bedtime are making it difficult.
I’m jolted from a half sleep-drool as our truck jolts to a stop on the side of the road, followed by our 5 truck posse. All the men get out and help my guy to fix the problem. I guess it’s a good idea to travel in a group like this for exactly this reason. One of them might know a lot more about fixing one part than another of them might.
I get some time to brush my teeth, stretch my legs, and watch them work on something behind the wheel. Then, we all jump back in and continue on our way. Finally, at around midnight, we pull into a truck park. The driver tells me that we’re right next to the boarder and we’ll cross tomorrow after some sleep. He tells me to go stay in the guesthouse just down the road because his truck is too small for two to sleep. He tells me to be back at 3 am to continue. Wow, that doesn’t seem like much of a plan to sleep.
Standing in front of the guest house I realize this is going against my rules, so I go back to ask the truck park guard if I can sleep in my tent. I pull out the picture of a tent I printed and explain I want to go I between their trucks on the dirt. He says no, but something about me doing something else. After they all talk about my options, the guard asks if I can speak Lao. I’ve been around these Chinese guys all day and they are speaking Chinese to the guard, so that option completely escaped my head.
Speaking to him in Lao, I find out that the truck drivers won’t be leaving for three days as their registration goes through, not three in the morning departure. Ooh, whoops. He also tells me that it’s fine if I use my tent, but not by the trucks. I thank all the truck drivers before leaving them for the night. I can’t believe their kindness the whole time and that it took me just one hitch to get all the way to the Chinese boarder.
A younger guard brings me over to a cement area to use my tent. As I’m unloading he brings me over a broom to clean the area and shows me the bathrooms. I feel good knowing both of them will be patrolling all night. Good thing Aaron gave me his sleeping pad because there’s no way I would have gotten any sleep on the hard concrete.