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Deep in a hammock on a river in Laos


I didn’t want to wake up.

I was serenly nested in my hammock on the porch of our bungalow. I had rigged a mosquito net, strung from my laundry line over the balcony. There was a moisture-filled raincloud over the river, masking the Yellowstone-on-jungle-steroids mountains of Muong Ngoi, Laos.

PERFECT sleeping-in weather.

Except I couldn’t.

A nagging feeling pulled at my stomach, exacerbated by the rooster chorus populating the Lao Village. Today was a passage into the unknown: my twenty-fourth birthday.

It wasn’t an age I ever imagined being. I can recall telling Jenny Meyers at age eight that turning sixteen would most likely be the year I became a fairy princess astronaut. I know that I was stoked to have a driver’s license issued without the death stamp of “UNDER 21 UNTIL…”

When I was ten, my parents threw a Harris bash not soon forgotten: Complete with rented clown costumes, a neighborhood parade and hippie socialist gift exchange (in which all children had to participate, even if it was THEIR birthday and they wanted the presents ALL TO THEMSELVES). Yes, the circus at 1001 S. 2nd street inspired me to wish that time would pause that day in the fourth grade.

But twenty-four? After so many birthdays, I’d never envisioned this one as a transcendent milestone. Not that this is news to anyone, but to reiterate: I have no job, no man, nothing but a passport, a dingy tennis ball (which is technically only half mine) and the dirtiest toes known to mankind.

This thought depressed me for a minute as I watched the sun rise over the Nam Ou River. A water buffalo belonging to the owner of our bungalow was shaking his mane free of mucked-up river crud, clanging his bell at me in mockery. “Welcome to the world of wrinkly old things,” he sneered.

“At least I’m not chained to the fence,” I stuck my tongue out at Mr. Buffalo.

Gina and I had been in the north of Laos for three days. The day before, we had taken a songthaew (long-tailed wooden boat) up the Nam Ou to a remote village lacking cars, motorcycles or telephones. We enjoyed the luxury of electricity from 6-9:30ish pm. This was the draw of Muong Ngoi: Not only was I getting a feel for rural, hilltribe Laos, but I got to play outside in the mountains ALL DAY LONG and gleefully camp in my hammock everynight.

I was euphoric about spending my birthday in such a place until it actually happened.

I glanced at my geriatric buffalo buddy and wished he could transport me to a magical facebook portal where I could check in with my past life and feel self-indulgently loved. Or Skype with my Daddy. Or call my Aunt LeAnne and listen to her recount the moments of my first day on earth (one of my favorite birthday occurences).

Inside our bamboo-stilted hut, Gina slept soundly: this was good. She had been so sick the previous day. “Soooooo,” I thought to myself. With the only soul I knew recovering from Riverwateritis, I prepared to jazz up March 21st the Jordan Knight way.

As I returned from a cup of Laos coffee (thankfully a little more considerate on the intestines than Vietnamese brew), I found an awesome birhtday surprise: GINA! Up, dressed, and smiling.

We decided to hike up PaBoom, the largest mountain in the village. The summit is too steep to pass, it’s mostly rock climbing, and in the States they might have suggested technical equipment. In fact, it was such that foreigners were not permitted up without a guide.

That’s when birthday magic transpired.

Chumphorn, a 26-year-old Muong Ngoi native had been working as a trekking guide for the last seven years. His english was functionable, so we gleaned insight at every turn (the ones where we weren’t hanging on to a cliff ledge to prevent falling to our deaths in the river below). He was saving money to get married and start a life in the village. Those darn water buffalo cost upwards of 2,000 USD and he needed one (and a hut and stuff) before he could take a bride. His friend Paul from California had figured out a way to help on the romantic side, at least: Chumphorn possessed a used guitar and an American repertoire – “You know ‘Hotel California’, yes?”

The rest of the day went like this: I accidentally sat on a snake. In peak JoAnne form, while standing absolutely still at the bottom of PaBoom, my exhausted muscles gave way into the tributary where I proceeded to unknowingly pick up a leech that I later pulled out the Bear Grylls way while Gina ran for table salt. Serendipitously, friends from our previous travels showed up at the village. Alex and Julia, a Seattle couple we had gone out with in Luang Prabang, Steff from Canada, Nathan the Aussie who had ridden with me on a bus from Vang Vieng. We all ate curreid pumpkin under candlelight, and had a makeshift cake (double stuffed oreos). I was serenaded in English AND Swedish (the Swedish birthday song giver was a woman my mother’s age who drunkenly and dutifully told me to check my email soon, because surely my parents were thinking of me). Alex and Chumphorn built a fire on the beach – a terrific celebration with Lao friends and Weterners alike, a miraculous gathering of the younger crowd dwelling in Muong Ngoi. We drank Beerlao and Lao-Lao (village rice whiskey) and the Jo-Lao (Gina’s very own concoction done up the “American” way: jungle juice in waterbottles).

Chumphorn and his friends played Thai and Lao pop music, and induldged me in Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting for You”.

The birthday flashbacks returned. I was 22 and there was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a boy with a guitar and his own rendition of the dorkiest love song on the planet. I thought he walked on water. In the weeks surrounding that birthday, I had dreamed that he’d plan a master escape and let me play Peter to his Jesus, as the template for post-graduation Lutheran singles stigmafies.

In retrospect, though I’ve not yet again felt my heart so vulnerably glue-sticked to my sleeve or my emotions flying full mast in the monsoon affectionately termed ‘falling in love’, I knew it wasn’t end all or be all and that a life of whimpering “I fear, so someone else, something else…lead me, ’cause I can’t do it myself” would be an injustice.

I’m so thankful I was forced to decide that I could walk on water. Alone. And still float.

It’s the same power ballad, but a different key; a different hemisphere. Same cheesy lyrics but a different, insane, glorious story of self-actualization and Divine truth, forgiveness and growth: mine.

More by JoAnne Harris on her travel blog.

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