03 April 2014
In a quiet village on the border between Thailand and Laos, a Canadian traveller named Jenn had arisen early to get breakfast. Her boyfriend, Andrew, had only gone to bed a few hours before. He’d been up drinking with some of the other tourists, and as a result was slow to come down to eat. Andrew was the social one, and now, on her own, Jenn spooned some tepid rice into a bowl and found a seat at the last unoccupied table in the canteen. She didn’t like talking to people she didn’t know. The other tables were slowly filling up with travellers speaking in excited whispers about the upcoming boat ride down the Mekong River.
Back home, Jenn was a gymnastics instructor. She had wide shoulders, a straight posture, and toned limbs. Four months of traveling through South East Asia had also brought her skin to a healthy olive glow. It was difficult for her to avoid attention, but somehow she managed.
Sam, on the other hand, had grown up in theatre. Sam was a tall English presence. She was tattoos and piercings. She was black hair and square glasses. She was charisma and charm. She was easy laughter and silly voices. She was sympathy and leadership. She had a dancer’s frame and an actor’s presence, and when she strode into the canteen that morning she had no problem in striking up a conversation with the tiny gymnast who hid in the corner.
The two made small talk. Sam spoke because she was good at it. Jenn listened, because she didn’t like to talk. Her eyes darted to the door. Andrew normally did the talking.
The boat was stuffy and crowded, and the motion didn’t quite agree with Sam. She made her way to the bow to get some air, her long legs stepping over sun-pinked German tourists, sidestepped ukulele-strumming backpackers, and danced around empty beer bottles gone astray. At the front of the boat, she found Jenn sitting peacefully on her own, nursing a beer she didn’t want.
“Oh it’s you!” Said Sam, “You alright then?”
“Yeah,” said Jenn, pleasantly. “Just catching the breeze.”
“Mind if I sit down?” Sam folded her big presence down next to Jenn. Years of yoga and dance had taught Sam to contort her body easily into any space, no matter how tiny.
“Sure,” said Jenn, after Sam had already gotten comfortable. “Andrew’s somewhere making friends.” From the back of the boat, they heard Andrew’s laugh.
“Cor,” said Sam. “It’s well stuffy back there. Much better up front.”
“Yeah,” Said Jenn. They sat in silence for a while. They both found the silence an easy one to sit in.
“Do you want the rest of my beer?” said Jenn. “I don’t really like it.”
05 April 2014
They were on land again, but still the water chased them. A harrowing storm had let loose on the tiny town that they were staying in. It was as if an entire ocean was being upturned onto the frail bamboo hostel. Andrew had gone out to a club with some of the other tourists. He didn’t have a key and wouldn’t know how to get back in. The rain continued until 03.00 in the morning, and all the while Jenn stayed awake, waiting for her boyfriend to return. Sam was there too. She had nothing better to do and she liked looking out at the rain. It was too loud to talk. Occasionally Sam would give Jenn’s hand a squeeze.
06 April 2014
The road to into the mountains is steep, windy, and not for the faint of heart. The hillside had been scraping the tarred road away for ages, and even from her relatively secluded vantage point on the bus, Sam could see that the bus was at all times only inches away from a fatal fall. No surprise that by the time the bus finally stopped at its destination, she was feeling nauseous. Without a word, she rushed into the station’s ill-maintained bathroom. Moments later, Jenn followed, carrying a wad of toilet paper. There was every chance that the bathroom wouldn’t have any.
09 April 2014
They were dreading the capital. It was the place where their paths would diverge. Jenn and Andrew were going to a place called Four Thousand Islands. Sam was heading back to Thailand. They were planning to have one last coffee together before they went their separate ways. Sam would talk, and Jenn would listen, because she liked to listen to Sam. Or sometimes she would talk, too. With Sam it was easy. Sam was tattoos and piercings. She was silly voices and good advice. She was a hand to hold during a violent storm or a scary bus ride. She was easy laughter and handfuls of toilet paper and family photos from the glow of a phone. She was comfort and promise and wisdom and friendship.
The three of them stepped off the final bus and glanced around for a coffee shop. But then there was the tour guide. A bus was leaving – where were the bags? – a confused hug, a blown kiss caught on the Laotian wind, and then Sam was gone.
There was bewilderment, like the recoil from a slap.
Briefly, things had been beautiful. But, for the traveller, the universe is full of cruel injustices. It shows you something wonderful, and then takes it away.
I’ve been stationary for two years now, but there are still always goodbyes. Living outside of your home country means constantly being shown the saplings of friendships that have the potential to bloom into something perfect, and then having that taken from you.