Dedicated to Humpeng and family of Sabai Sabai Massage & Restaurant in Nong Khiaw, Laos. May your compassionate laughter never change.
I was in Nong Khiaw, a dry, quiet village in the north of Laos, and I hadn’t left my guesthouse in three days.
Three days earlier, I was stumbling along the single deserted, dusty village road. Not walking, or wandering, but stumbling, and at four o’clock in the early morning. The sun hadn’t even peeked the tip of its head out over the horizon yet, and so I stumbled; stumbled along the empty road in almost complete darkness. Tokay geckos attempted to entice potential mates with their throaty calls, and the strange sound of them reverberated through the otherwise silent streets. It was likely a beautiful night, had I been able to notice.
In those moments, however, I was delirious with fever and thirst. I had awoken around four hours prior in my riverside guesthouse to a demonic flood of vomiting. I’d barely untangled myself from the mosquito net floating down like a princess canopy around my bed in time to stagger to the squat toilet into which the entirety of my stomach’s contents violently lurched. Soon after, I had begun to quake with cold and sweat, and not even crazily forcing my fully clothed body under the hot shower brought any comfort to my icy bones. Not long after that, my throat came to the sudden, painful realization that I needed water. Badly. Even the locals refused to drink the poisoned water that came out the tap, and I had made the idiotic mistake, never to be excused in a relatively seasoned backpacker, of returning to my guesthouse that night without having stocked up on several bottles of filtered water.
Deliriously feverish, I but to the rest of the early hours stumbling the village roads, pausing occasionally to painfully heave the sour acid that remained in my stomach, and searching desperately for a villager, or a fellow traveler, or anyone to just give me some water. No one was awake, not even the roosters. I’d finally had to give up my search and curl up, fetus position, on my bed until my host family awoke. It was the worst I’d felt physically in my entire life.
So for three days, I’d used the all-forgiving excuse of “food poisoning” to isolate myself in my guesthouse, avoiding any chances that might necessitate me to interact. Day after day, I laid in my hammock, overlooking the Nam Ou river flowing lazily below me, cutting through majestic limestone peaks so high the tips were hidden by the clouds of heaven. Local fishermen pulled in their colorful long tail boats along the banks, making room for the village children floating languidly down the river in thick black tire tubes. Laughing grandmothers, bodies wrapped in sarongs, stood ankle-high on the shores and dunked their bodies in the lukewarm water to bathe. It was a humbling backdrop to say the least, and I was too wrapped up in self-absorbed misery to see any of it.
I had learned the painful lesson that nothing makes one feel more bonecrushingly lonely than becoming violently ill with a mysterious affliction in a completely foreign place with completely foreign people, not one of them who you could even call an acquaintance. No, nothing makes one feel lonelier than that, and I bathed in the reality of this in the days following my middle-of-the-night explosive vomiting spell. The blood in my veins ached with aloneness. Alone because no one within 1,000 miles of me was even aware of my existence, much less available to nurse me back to health, but it was more than that.
This was all too familiar of a situation. This aloneness may have been brought painfully to the surface along with my vomit, but it was a feeling that had been birthed at home long ago, so long ago that I felt I had carried it with me my entire life. I was alone because I just was. Alone because somehow, I just didn’t seem to be able to connect with people. Alone because there was something missing in me, something so fundamentally wrong with me, that I wouldn’t ever be able to fix. I had thought that traveling, that living my dreams, would fix me, and it’d felt like it had, for a while. I’d felt happy and free-spirited for much of the time during my past year of solo travel. I’d thought I’d gotten better. And yet here I was. Still me. One sick spell, and I had reverted so easily into the person I was trying to destroy, a person who hated herself passionately and terrified to engage with other people, with life. I was disgusted.
I decided to leave Nong Khiaw the next day. I would head back to Luang Prabang, the nearest city with an airport, and leave the country, leave the region, and go back home, where I could comfortably lie in bed and curl up and read and escape and not ever have to deal with anything scary or sad. Go back home, where I wouldn’t feel guilty about not exploring, about not living, about hating myself. Go back home, where I felt just as alone as I did here in this dusty village, but where I didn’t expect to ever feel otherwise.
I peripherally caught the vague sight of a man walking toward me, and instinctively cringed. Feeling physically stronger as well as emotionally safer after I’d made the decision to leave, I had ventured out of my guesthouse and down the road to try to enjoy my last Lao meal at “Sabai Sabai” Restaurant. Literally, “Easy Easy”; or, “not a care in the world”. I wasn’t quite in the mood to be disturbed by a person who had, who was lucky enough to have, this kind of attitude towards life.
“Is okay?” the man’s booming voice rang out against the night.
“Yes, sehp lai lai. Khob chai.” Delicious. Thank you. (Now, please leave me alone.)
I gazed up warily, and instantly, the disembodied voice metamorphosed into a living human being standing in front of me. He was a plump man, middle-aged, with dark skin and a round nose. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt with the name of a nearby backpacker town emblazoned on it and on his wide feet hung tattered rubber sandals. His large eyes sparkled with the absolute truth of his smile, a common phenomenon among all of the local people I’d met. He gazed at me with those eyes and with that smile, and I didn’t know what to say.
I tried again. “Khob ch–”
“Humpeng!,” the man interrupted, pounding his chest with the palm of his hand, waves of childlike pride beaming from his smile.
I was stunned, but amused. The heaviness of the past days evaporated a miniscule amount.
“Hum…peng?,” the name left a foreign, but pleasant, taste in my mouth. Humpeng nodded euphorically.
“Humpeng! Humpeng!,” he affirmed, continuing to pound his chest.
“Humpeng,” I repeated, more confidently this time. “Humpeng.”
I placed my hand over my own chest. “Saya,” I attempted cautiously.
Humpeng understood me right away. “Saya!” he shouted, gesturing towards me. “Saya, Humpeng!”
“Saya, Humpeng,” I echoed. Humpeng’s smile was contagious and now we were both smiling the same pure smile.
“Nice to meet you,” I tried, reaching out my hand for his.
Humpeng was somewhat familiar with the custom. He enclosed both of his warm hands over mine, and raised it in the air. A laugh escaped from him, and it sounded to me like the music of triumphant joy. I felt it, too: triumphant joy that two human beings, who did not appear to have anything in common, had managed to communicate in the language of humanness.
I stayed at Sabai Sabai until the early morning that night. Humpeng and I talked and laughed for hour after hour. Somehow, we managed to communicate about the important things, about what he loved about his village, about how much he loved his life. He went inside his house and brought out a small tattered album, every page filled with pictures of his children. There were pictures of them as young children playing in the water, and pictures of his sons as adolescents being ordained as novice monks. I saw Humpeng’s eyes fill with cloudy grief as he showed me pictures of his daughters, who had all left the village to work or marry in the city. Although demolishing this grief was uncomplicated pride of his children, I could see that Humpeng felt lonely sometimes, too.
Humpeng introduced me, without a hint of embarrassment, to every friend and family member who came to the restaurant that night. The abounding aunties and cousins and great-uncles came to greet me and chat for a while in a language they didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t understand. Their conversations sounded to my foreign ears like the most joy-filled conversations that human beings had ever shared. Every one of them smiled Humpeng’s smile. They all insisted that I try foods off their plates, and seemed delighted at my approving reactions. It felt ridiculous, because if there was ever a place in the world I didn’t fit in, it was here, among this group of middle-aged, laughing Laotians. And yet somehow, as the night wore on, I felt the increasing tingle of belongingness.
I met the only one of Humpeng’s children who had stayed to work at Sabai Sabai, his eldest son Ken. Ken had heartbreakingly kind eyes and spoke excellent English, and we quickly discovered that we were almost exactly the same age; born two days apart. Humpeng applauded like a child when we learned this, applauded as if we had accomplished something just by being born.
When I told Humpeng in my crude, basic Lao about how sick I had been, his eyes widened and he immediately called out for his wife. She came hurrying over, and they spoke boisterously, making universal gagging motions with their hands. I sat there, stunned at their concern for a stranger, as they prodded my face with their fingers and prepared for me a local beverage that they insisted would cure my ailments. The warm, sweet liquid traveled down my throat, and so much more than my nausea felt cured. Humpeng and his wife implored me with their worried attention, and I could feel nothing but love radiating from their bodies. I understood that these people’s intrinsic compassion led them to take care of any person in their path who was in need of help, and that they did so solely because isn’t that what human beings do for each other? I was overcome with honor to be in their presence.
“Saya dota!” Humpeng’s face expressed that he was telling me something important, but I couldn’t understand the second word.
“Yes, I am Saya. What is dota?”
Humpeng tried again. “Dota! Humpeng Papa, my wife Mama, Saya dota.”
Dota. Daughter. Humpeng is Papa, his wife is Mama, and I am daughter. He was telling me that I was their daughter, with the look of undeniable pride on his face. Pride at what? I wondered wildly. Pride at what? My heart shattered into tiny eggshell pieces of love and gratitude and the relief at their acceptance of me. Relief because my reverence and respect for Humpeng forced me to believe that if he judged me to be worthy of acceptance into his family, then I must be acceptable. And what a relieving realization that was.
One often hears the phrase, “They took care of me like their own.” I do not believe that I was able to truly appreciate the impossible beauty of this statement until Humpeng and his family fed me and loved me and treated my wounds that night. They took care of me like their own. I did not feel that these people treated me any differently than they would have treated their own children. They expressed genuine worry for my well-being, they helped me to the absolute limits of their ability, and they did all of this without a trace of resentment or of expectation. They did it because, for whatever reason, they had decided I was theirs. I was theirs, I belonged to them, and maybe if I belonged to them, I also belonged to the world. Maybe if I belonged to them, then I wasn’t alone after all. I was theirs, and I knew I was theirs, and that was all I needed to begin healing.
I still left Nong Khiaw the next day, because it somehow seemed right to do so. But instead of running South for the city where I could catch a plane home, I decided to take a song-theaw bus further to the North, further into the unknown. I was still afraid, and I could feel the residue of my depressive breakdown lingering in my blood, but I was now equipped with something that I had never had before: trust. Trust in the fact that people were truly good, trust that I would never be alone so long as I was a human being in this world with other human beings, and most importantly, trust that I was perfectly okay and whole and acceptable as I was.
Humpeng’s son drove me to the bus station that morning, and from the backseat of his motorbike, the wide, dusty roads that I had so despised until just yesterday looked different, looked welcoming. Looked like a place I belonged. With the wind blowing in my face, I felt almost free from the afflictions, the self-hatred that had so plagued me during my stay here and through my entire life. Somehow, I had become a human being overnight; not better than anyone else, and not worse, either. I finally belonged to the human race, which consisted not of frightening strangers, but of people like Humpeng, who lived their lives in the best way they knew how, who felt desperately lonely sometimes and sought human connection where they could, who suffered and were complicated but fundamentally good. People, it turned out, like me.
“You come back here someday, na? Sure?”
Ken’s eyes betrayed that he did not expect I will come back to them, but his smile forgave me for that, and he placed his hand on my shoulder with immense respect.
“You are my family now, na.”
As I watched him ride away back to his life, I breathed and fingered the simple beaded bracelet that his father Humpeng had offered me that morning as we’d said good-bye. “So you won’t forget us,” Ken had translated.
I had not had anything to offer back to him, and there would never be anything I could do to repay him for his kindnesses. But I accepted his gift, all of his gifts, with gratitude of an enormity that he could never imagine, with gratitude so big it felt like it would swallow me and the world.
Khob chai lai lai, Humpeng. Khob chai lai lai.
Saya Des Marais was born in Tokyo, Japan and raised in Santa Monica, CA where she currently resides. She is a clinical social worker taking a career hiatus to take advantage of her youth and pursue other dreams, particularly those of travel and writing. She recently returned from her first backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, and this is the first writing contest she has ever entered. She has loved “pursuing other dreams” so much that her career hiatus has been extended indefinitely. She is 26 years old.
“Like Their Own” won a Gold Award in the Bad Trip category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.