Well, it is always a culture shock to leave Don Det.
When you're at home, where every day connects effortlessly into the next, like riding a subway train from one end of the lane to the other and your only stops are small inconveniences in your life... Go to doctor station, holiday station, my SO just dumped me station - it's hard to miagine that 3 weeks can seem like a lifetime. That in just 3 weeks your way of thinking, your way of acting, walking, eating, talking, being, can change so much - or reveal itself so much.
Don Det was even better this time around. I think it's because I came back. When you're a local there - as I was for 3 months 2 years ago - you tend to stop investing so much in friendships and the like with travelers because let's face it, after a while, continuously saying goodbye, hope to see you again one day, it was great, well, it takes it's toll. So you tuck your shirt's sleeve over your heart and maintain a degree of separation.
Since I came back though, I showed the residents that I'm not just a backpacker anymore. I belong here. I feel it, and I think they feel it too. The last night, hosting ex-pats and Lao peeps alike, sitting under the stars on nothing but a traditional carpet, drinking Lao-Lao out of one glass for the whole group, I could feel it. People care. I care too. The feeling is amazing.
A lot of people came to my good-bye BBQ before I left Montreal and I am very grateful for it. However, there is a certain group of people, let's call them The Inner Circle, the boys that I've known since I moved back to Montreal when I was 14... Well only 2-3 of them showed up. During a short moment of quietness between two board games, Phil looked at me with a mild expression of concern and asked: "Etienne, where are all the boys?". I shrugged my shoulders in a two-sided body language of "I don't know" and "I don't care".
Truth is, of course I care, but like when I was on Don Det, I can't let it get to me, or I'll just get sad and I don't like being sad.
I understand that everyone's got their own life to live - and that's why I was able to leave again, maybe this time for ever. I have my own life to live as well, I hope you understand, is what I am trying to say.
The bonds I have forged with Ken, Jon, Adam, Phil, Manni, Phone's family, Sit and everyone are as important to me as if I had known them my whole life.
So, leaving Don Det after 3 weeks of waking up naturally in my wooden bungalow, to slowly go eat breakfast with my Lao family (sticky rice and spicy stuff), then walking around talking to people, helping dig foundations or build a bamboo fence or preparing a BBQ. To sit down on a bench and just talk about life with Phil while he paints his new Burger Kong sign, or watch South Park at Adam's until the kids show up and want to play. To read a book until Ken's kid is dumped on my lap - here, your turn to take care of him - and finding failproof ways of making him laugh. To never worry about money, to never see a car, to go to sleep when I'm tired not because I have to...
I know it's not the real life, it's the traveler's life, but it's so easy to get used to it.
If Don Det was a woman, she would be the country girl, dressed in a Lao traditional dress, with long black hair and her skin mildly tanned, walking slowly here and there in flip-flops and a reserved air, slightly frowning but easy to laughter. We would go for a short walk through the rice fields at night to star-gaze, then find someone to take a shot of Lao-Lao with, never talking about kids, or money. When it was time to say good-bye, there would be a long heart-felt embrace, followed by a quick "When will I see you again", a short squeeze of the hand and a pat on the butt, and a wave good-bye.
Last time I left her, it was to take a 28-hour bus straight to Bangkok.
This time, it was for Vientiane, and then to Hanoi.
And if Hanoi was also a woman, she would welcome me back with a short but strong hug, kiss on the cheeks, grabbing my hand and urging me to drop my bags off before we go for a drink and street food, dodging kids in rollerblades and ladies selling donuts. Last time I saw her she was wearing heels and very short shorts showing off her amazing legs and butt, with a huge beautiful smile and teasing eyes. This time around she traded the shorts for tight jeans and a light winter jacket, but she still grabbed me by the hand and dragged me out for beers. I was reluctant though, still thinking about Don Det, about the quietness, how slow everything is, how hot it is, how we don't need to be talking about anything, drinking in the silence, slowly swinging in a hammock.
And so I set my 3rd beer down and tell her, hey, sorry, I'm kind of tired, I need to sleep a little bit more, but we can get back in a day or two if you'd like.
We have much to talk about however, and the quiet walks to nowhere in particular are replaced with discussions over tea, about history, culture, food, traveling, girls, money. She has much to share and the days go by quick.
Don Det and Hanoi would sometimes ask about Canada, that elusive woman from home, the one that raised me and reluctantly let me go, that couldn't be there to say goodbye because she was too busy. That woman who rarely keeps in contact, only to ask "Where are you now? When are you coming back?" but rarely asks "How are you doing?". That woman so diverse, so stressful and yet so happy, who wishes I was back so that all the pieces of her jigsaw would be in their proper place, never really realizing that I never fitted completely in the first place, that I longed to break free.
I am the monopoly die you lost somewhere, that you never think about until you open the box, about to play, and notice that I am gone.
You complain a little bit, but quickly make do without, and I go on, rolling but never quite coming to a stop.