When I was a teenager I struggled with not feeling at home in the world after my dad died. More recently, being an English woman living in Scotland, my sense of home has been challenged; Scotland feels more like home but England is where my (at least immediate) roots are. In 2007, when I came to Laos for the first time, I remember shocking myself by thinking, on my first day in Luang Prabang, “this feels like home”. Most recently, on the retreat, we were taught that home is not a geographic location but this moment and this breath.
When I left Scotland a few weeks ago my friend Helen gave me a beautiful necklace made out of driftwood from the beach at Portobello in Edinburgh. I was so happy to bring a piece of Edinburgh around my neck through Asia to Laos. But then when I was on the retreat it fell off the chain and I lost it. Honestly, I was so upset, I emptied all my bags and asked everyone in my room if they had seen it, but when I was unsuccessful I tried to view it as a lesson in non-attachment. I always have Edinburgh (and my friends) inside me; the symbol is beautiful but not necessary.
I was anxious about coming back to Laos, I always am. I am always worried that maybe this time Laos won’t feel like home. I had found a group of people that I really enjoyed spending time with in Chiang Mai and I wanted to cling to them. But staying there would have just been putting off the inevitable, so despite a dodgy stomach and not having slept well for a week (my classic signs of stress) I got in a minibus to head out on a 15 hour overnight journey to Vientiane.
Also playing on my mind was the fact that I hadn’t been able to contact my preferred guesthouse in Vientiane, where I stayed for 4 months last year. I had instead sent an email to a friend who works there asking him to reserve me a room but I’d had no reply.
The bus journey was remarkably painless, if a little cramped and a little long and a little too much of listening to young British travellers discussing the anticipated joys of tubing in Vang Vieng! I awoke to find that we had arrived in Nong Khai and had to go into the travel agent’s office to have breakfast and complete the immigration and visa forms. As I tiredly scrambled around in my bag to find a pen I felt something unfamiliar and smiled as I pulled out the lost pendant from over ten days before.
The border crossing went smoothly and I got a tuk tuk to my favourite guesthouse. As we pulled in I recognised the young man at the desk, not the friend that I had emailed but someone else that I had spent time with on my last visit. He welcomed me with a wide smile and handed me the key to my favourite room, with a hammock hanging on a balcony outside where I am currently writing this blog.
I wondered into town and sat in a little cafe drinking a watermelon shake, reading my book and soaking in the atmosphere. When I’d finished, another shake that I hadn’t ordered arrived, and when I questioned it the waiter told me that a French man sitting at another table had ordered it for me. Sadly, my automatic response was suspicion, but I joined my palms to thank him and he told me that it was no problem, that I looked so happy sitting there reading.
I had planned to arrive in Vientiane for Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) since it seems an auspicious time to begin my trip. Yesterday – the day after I arrived – I received invitations to two Pi Mai parties. In a tragic-comic twist I managed to miss the first one, which was with one project that I hope to do fieldwork with here in Vientiane, because of a mix up with times. But it was fine, I talked with them on the phone and I’ll see them next week after the festivities. The second was with an English language evening school run entirely by Lao English teachers that I visited quite a few times last year. Students and teachers together held a baci ceremony, followed by traditional singing and dancing and a riotous (albeit Lao and therefore gently riotous) raffle where the biggest prize was an enormous fan (it is hot here right now). I was welcomed with more wide smiles and blessings in the baci ceremony and slotted seamlessly into the programme for the evening. When I was presented with a t-shirt for the school I felt a real sense of belonging and friendship. Then I went with the teachers to eat dinner and drink red wine and talk and laugh.
Home in Laos, carrying Scotland with me, in the present moment. And it occurs to me that feeling at home is important for my happiness.