Phil and my holiday trip was not to the sexiest destination in the world. In fact, many of you have probably never even heard of it. We spent 4 nights in Vientiane, the sleepy capital city of Laos.
Mostly, we wandered around the small city by foot and drank coffee and ate good food. We did touristy things, like walking through the grounds of a few temples and climbing to the top of the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe.
But what distinguished this trip from other trips of ours is we spent much of it with strangers.
We spent our first night at the home of the director of COPE, a British man, and his Lao wife, accommodations that we booked through Airbnb. This large, traditional Lao home was made almost entirely of wood and tucked into the jungle about 10K outside of the city. They had two other guests, an American who had been staying with them for almost a month and was leaving the next day, and a Chinese woman who worked as an intern of sorts for the owner. We ate with them and chatted and learned about Lao culture as well as Chinese and Singaporean culture—the Chinese guest had lived in Singapore for about a year before moving to Vientiane. She was studying French and applying for university programs in France in order to be nearer to her boyfriend.
The next night, we met up with the sister of one of our fellow Da Nang expats for steak dinners at a French restaurant on one of Vientiane’s two main drags. She’s British and has lived in Vientiane for something like 7 or 8 years, where she now runs a cooking class, among other things. She was an invaluable resource, giving us tons of tips on places to eat and things to do.
This same woman also gave me the recommendation of someone to interview for an article, another expat, this one a retired American. I met him for coffee, and we chatted while Phil sat at the next table over, drawing and trading jazz band suggestions with the Swedish guy who was grinding the coffee beans. As the conversation was wrapping up, Phil asked my interviewee if he’d want to meet up for a beer later. He said sure, that he knew the perfect place to enjoy a Beer Lao and watch the sun set over the Mekong. We ended up spending the entire evening with him, his girlfriend joining us later on for dinner at an authentic Irish pub.
The best part of traveling like this, spending time with other expats, is you get to see a place through their eyes. It allows you to imagine what it would be like to live there.
Our to-do list for Vientiane was short, and mostly developed while there, making it easy for us to find time for these experiences. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on some important “must see” by taking 30 minutes to talk about ping pong culture in China…or how hard it is not to laugh when a Thai English language student tells you his name is pronounced “Titty Porn”…or the legend behind why the Lao people love to relax and eat and drink for hours on end (they inherited the stomach of an important historical figure while the Thai people got the head, the Vietnamese the hands)…or how pointless it is to work 100 hours a week and not be able to enjoy your fat paycheck…
When I was a teenager, I was mortified by how frequently my dad talked to strangers in public places, whether in line at the grocery store or in the bleachers at a football game. I was sure these people wanted to be left alone—like I did, preferring to be absorbed in myself—and that they certainly did not care about my dad’s sports knowledge. Now, I’m dating a guy who does the exact same thing. And the truth is—don’t roll your eyes, thirteen-year-old Sarah—it makes life so much more fun. Admittedly, some people are less inclined to talk to strangers, but there’s rarely anything lost in tossing a comment out there. And so often, there’s much to gain. People are fascinating, they have so many stories to tell. By listening to them, their experiences mean that much more, both to the storyteller and the listener.
There’s a fun quote that I’m sure many of you have heard before. It’s attributed to Augustine of Hippo and it goes: “The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page.”
Similarly, we all have our own “world books”, and if we’re too busy rereading our own and deciding what the next chapter should be called, we may as well throw out our library cards. Enjoying the stories of others—by reading them or, at a more personal level, by listening to them—allows us to peek into their world book and read a favorite excerpt or two. I’m meeting people with books of all shapes and colors and languages right now, and I’m enjoying that diversity. But no matter where we go and who we find ourselves next to while drifting between our self-proclaimed memorable moments, everyone has their own book with their own highlights to share. All you have to do is (if you’re like me, gather your courage and) talk to them. And take the time to listen.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.