Flying Solo

Posted by Garth on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

As I've previously identified, I suck at traveling alone.  I've been giving this a lot of thought lately, especially after reading Mike's post on why he prefers it.  I am currently in Vientiane, Laos.  Alone.  I don't speak the language, and whenever I try talking English or French (the theoretical second language here) I generally get a bunch of gibberish I don't understand in return.  That's not to say that I'm putting on my Superiority Hat(TM) here or anything, in fact just the opposite.  I'm in a foreign country whose foreign language I can't speak or understand, and it causes me stress.  I'm afraid to eat at a noodle stand because I have no idea what to ask for.  So I eat at tourist traps which cost too much and don't give me an "authentic" experience.  But then I think to myself... self, what is an authentic experience for one such as you?  Stammering and trying to explain that you really REALLY don't like seafood so please, just give me some sort of noodle dish with pork, chicken or beef?  Trying to find an internet connection that runs faster than slow dialup (ok, to give them credit, the best connection I've found here actually runs faster than slow EDGE, but still!)?  And the level of English (and probably French) here is likely far better than if I venture deeper into the countryside.  This presents a serious problem for me... and I'm positive it's because I'm by myself.  If I was traveling with someone else, these would be non-issues.  Sure, we'd both still have communication issues and we both might have trouble getting what we want, but at best it would end up a joke that we could share together and laugh about later, and at worst we'd both get screwed, and as we all know, misery loves company.

And then there's the other question which has been praying on my mind lately.  Is this venture being spoiled because of the Internet?  Let's use the Plain of Jars as an example.  I read about them, I see pictures, I understand what's going on.  I read about the archeology reports and about the myths.  I understand what there is to understand.  And then I think to myself... self, what's the point of a journey to the middle of nowhere when you already have all this knowledge?  I must admit, it was difficult to write that last sentence, because I know that many of my readers (i.e. my friends and family) will be thinking "WTF?! What's wrong with you?!".  But I'm serious... what's the point?  Sure, it'd be cool... but so is a roller coaster.  Or swimming in the ocean on Xmas day.  Or having a beer on the Mekong at sunset.  Though all of those items lose something when they're done solo (at least, IMHO).  I'd much prefer to share my roller coaster, Xmas swim or sunset beer with a friend than experience them alone.  And, continuing on with the Plain of Jars, there's the "myth" side to contend with.  Sure, I admit, I haven't been there (yet?), but in reading this:

"At the foot of one of the hills, we met a woman gathering firewood with her young children. As did other people we encountered, she gave us the popular explanation for the jars: the tale of military victory and celebratory wine. She also said that the jars were molded from a mixture of sand, sugar, and buffalo hide—a traditional view disproved by mineralogical analysis."

I feel less inclined to do so.  Reader's Digest version of the above "explanation":

"Lao stories and legends claim that there was a race of giants who once inhabited the area. Local legend tells of an ancient king called Khun Cheung, who fought a long, victorious battle against his enemy. He supposedly created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao rice wine to celebrate his victory."

I've never been much of a fan of tradition-for-tradition's-sake, nor of ignorance for religious or other reasons.  So when I read that as far back as 1923 people have been studying these (studies which have contradicted the local myths), yet the locals still believe in the myths... well, I want to go there even less.  I don't want to pretend to know more about an area than someone that's lived there all their lives, but I also don't want to go to an area, having been previously informed about the area via scientific method, and be told that there's ghosts, vampires, voodoo or any other mythological hocus pocus.  Hell, I laugh every time a Thai person tells me they're afraid of ghosts.

Anyway, I don't want this diatribe to be a debate about the origins of the jars, but more about whether or not to go visit them (specifically) or other such sites (non-specifically).  What it comes down to is that it would probably be fun to visit with a companion, but pretty bland by myself.  This is obviously just an outlook thing, as I know many people that would be thrilled at such an opportunity, solo or not, but I just don't think I'm that person.  So, having said that, I'm not really sure where the road will take me next.  But wherever it is I'll do my best to keep you all informed... even though it may be over 1kb/s internet wherein I go bald before a post actually gets published.


Gillian said...

Dude, I so hear you about the language thing. Even when we're kind of figuring it out here, it's so much work every time we leave the house, and it's just so stressful. I think it's worth going to see some of those sites you mentioned just because often places like that are way more interesting in person. Remember when you went to Scotland and wanted to go to Loch Ness and everyone was like, but that's 30 minutes away! And you were like, but I came ALL THE WAY TO SCOTLAND. Or something. Anyway, go. Do it. Why not?

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