“Home is not where you were born. Home is where all your attempts to scape cease” – Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize in Literature 1988.
A couple of months ago I reached out to a friend I met during my travels. We met at a silent meditation retreat and spent a few weeks island hopping in SE Asia afterwards.
Every time we messaged each other, he would remind me of how thankful he was that I invited him to come along and spend some quiet and relaxing time at the beach, doing yoga, eating noodles and curries, and getting lost riding motorbikes under pouring rain. Every time, he would remind me of how lost he was when we left that retreat, and how welcome he felt by the invitation.
After we said goodbye and I continued my journey north, we kept in touch. He stayed in the islands, survived one of the worst floods in years, and started teaching at a local yoga school where, I believe, he still is.
Last time we exchanged messages, I updated him on my whereabouts. For him, who ended up staying there, with occasional travels home and to other Asian countries, it was difficult to grasp my need for constant movement. He asked me “what is it that you keep searching, and why can’t you find it”?
Until then, I hadn’t looked at my travels as a search, but as something naturally inherent to me, as a basic need to my self-balance. I mean, when you are searching for something, you are searching for what you need [want], right? So if you already have [and live] that, does it mean you’re still searching?
It was so clear to me that it was not a search, that it took me a while to understand his question. Until recently.
Lately, his question has been following me. Especially after my recent move, which was not meant to be as temporary as the latest ones. This time, I moved wishing to stay for a while, if not necessarily in the country, certainly in the region. I moved to a place I wished I had never left; and it feels like I have found something.
But how come I “found” if I wasn’t searching? It made me think that, perhaps, I’ve been looking for ways to stop my attempts to scape. Perhaps, I’ve been searching for home, even though I thought home was anywhere.
In a month from now, Literal Uncertainty turns 3. Three years of embracing uncertainty and being open to the unexpected, to the unknown, to the uncertain. Three years of listening carefully to my intuition, of freaking out once in a while, and of learning to accept that I simply don’t have an answer to the question “what’s next?”.
Acceptance is a daily exercise. Even when we think we know, we don’t. Period. And when we think we don’t, we do… in a way we always do – but it’s not always what and how we would like it to be.
Acceptance involves understanding the highs and lows, the excitements and boredoms, and all the moods, and fears, and joy that come along. It doesn’t mean accepting whatever happens without questioning, without wanting to change. It is a learning process, through which we learn how to deal with the constant groundlessness of life.
For the time being, I confess: I am indeed experiencing the joy of feeling home. For now, my attempts to scape whatever it is that I was trying to get away from have ceased. Right now I can focus on the uncertainties of a daily routine. At least for now.
I have been avoiding writing this post for a while. After all, am I not the ‘best coach for matters of uncertainty’ whose friends call for advice on how to cope with the uncertain groundlessness of life?
The truth is that since I last wrote here, I’ve been struggling with not knowing ‘how’ and ‘when’; when I’ve learned about the ‘where’, I struggled with the ‘what now’ and ‘what’s next’.
You read it right. It’s me, trying to find the answers that would make me feel ‘safer’ and have the unreal, but comfortable, feeling that everything is under control, and that I would be then in a better position to deal with the unknown future.
The three months following the 2nd anniversary of this blog tested my nerves and my ability to embrace the uncertainty of my life. It was also a period full of uncertainties around the political future of my country, of human rights, social justice and inclusion. All I knew was that I wanted to have a more meaningful job given everything that is happening in the world, the rise of intolerance, hatred, fundamentalism. I was happy with my mobility, but felt like my purpose in life was skipping through my hands.
Then one day I received an email. Followed by a job offer. A volunteer position, in an international organization, working with population affected by years of conflict in their home countries.
I said yes, but the restlessness remained.
Since I moved to this new country, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs; another way to say that the past few months haven’t been easy. Not sure if it is the place, the job, the lack of intimacy. All I know is that I have been feeling a bit under the weather, more than I’d usually feel. I’d never thought I would have a hard time adapting to places and people – after all, I’m a water person with water signs, and water is the most adaptable of the 4 elements, isn’t it?
I wouldn’t qualify the city where I’m living as a hardship place, but there’s a combination of factors that turn it into a difficult place to be.
To start, work is not ideal. It’s hard for me to work alone – don’t people know that’s the reason why I’d rather have two Masters than a PhD? I’ve been craving teamwork for so long, and here I am, a team of one again, feeling stuck and procrastinating to make decisions and prioritize among the endless tasks I have to tackle daily. I oscillate between very productive hours to periods in which I sit in front of the computer and stare at the screen without being able to make any progress. I suffer with the endless changes I have to do to the project schedule, which made me realize how deep my private sector exposure got under my skin – how come we don’t meet the impossible deadlines?
I also struggle with the politics, the who knows who, who does what and when and how, and at the end of the day it makes me wonder if the problem is not the place or job, but the expectations I created around it, the false expectations that it would give me a sense of certainty after all these years. It makes me wonder if the problem isn’t me and my idealistic and stubborn self – by the way, thank you Myers Briggs for reminding me idealism is both one of my strengths and weaknesses. Should I be more (more???) flexible and understanding?
These thoughts and feelings feed into a loop that takes my self-confidence downhill, I find myself complaining too much, I feel exhausted, and my first impulse is to quit. It’s clear, though, that this is a trap, a trap that feeds into the loop of questioning the uncertainties of life and reinforces feelings like fear, anxiety, self-pity, and undermines self-confidence. Even though I know it’s a trap, I can’t help but walk towards it.
On top of all that, there’s the place where I live… I miss watching sunsets, I miss taking long walks without having to ignore what men say when I’m passing by (if only I couldn’t understand what they say…), I miss live music, I miss friendship, I miss intimacy, I miss so many things that I haven’t yet been able to find here that it makes me wonder if I had grown to be that type of person I always judged, the one that is picky, not resilient to difficult environments, that has a hard time being flexible and understanding. Have I become that person?
What happened to my “embracing uncertainty” and living life fully no matter how and where?
Was it only a phase? Was it some sort of fake news my brain came up with to trick me to walk into the trap? Was it something I made up in order to protect myself from the life I had to live in the past 3.5 years?
I like the idea of being a living example of resilience, as Professor William Moomaw once said to me. I like to think I can endure and adapt according to what life brings me, here and now, but I started wondering if what I’m going through means that we all have a line we are not willing to cross when it comes to dealing with discomfort, or with the uncertainty of where this discomfort will lead us to. All regardless of what/who/how we’d like to be.
The good thing is, and despite everything I’ve just shared, I do like my job and the challenges it entails. I certainly like the type of work I’m doing. I like the organization, most of my colleagues, and specially the smart and inspiring women with whom I live and/or work remotely with. I’m certain that there are plenty of people around me that are willing to help and show me how things work or don’t, to teach me new things and help me grow professionally, to show me which opportunities are out there. Most importantly, I’m sure that this experience, no matter where it takes me to, is the right one for me, right here, right now.
Even though I see the trap, only a few meters away, I have the strength to avoid falling into it, and having found a place where I can recharge, get my thoughts in order, before tackling another week, was an important part of surviving the ups and downs of the past few months.
Don’t be fooled by my Instagram posts, with beautiful sunsets, pristine blue water, and wide smiles from the boys that run to me crying ‘Maria!’. It all exists, but it’s not the full picture of what I’m currently living. It is, indeed, an essential part of my life here; it’s what I look forward after a long week at work.
Together with sharing my fears and vulnerabilities, it keeps me away from the trap, and reminds me that no matter what we do, where we are, how we live, there’s no such a thing as escaping uncertainty. So, if you have to embrace it, make sure you find your safe place, where you can watch the sunset, paint with the kids, and swim in blue and warm waters.
Below, one of my favorite sayings, one I always go back to in moments like this; because it’s all part of this journey called life: the joy, the frustrations, the pain, the happiness.
“Frustrations are life’s gestures
Through which we grow in knowledge,
And impermanence is the circular turning of our lives,
Experienced as a play in which meaning is unfolded as balance.”
Exactly two years ago, I was leaving the US after 3 years, with a 55l backpack and a day pack, heading to Southeast Asia without a clue on what would happen next.
Today, I’m still embracing uncertainty not knowing what’s next, but certain that that ticket I bought to Bangkok, two years ago, was one of the best purchases I’ve made in my whole life.
During the second year of embracing the groundlessness of life and not having a place to call ‘home’ for more than a couple of weeks, I spent some time back in my home country and visited 12 others, I landed in Africa for the first time, went on a breathtaking (literally) trekking looking at the Aconcagua, met some of my best friends in random places,went back to Europe, spent 10 days meditating in silence, got my motorbike drivers license.
Instead of writing about my adventures, I’ve decided to answer some of the questions people keep asking me about my nomadic ‘lifestyle’. If you’d like to ask me something that is not listed below, just shoot me a message or leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer.
Literal Uncertainty has been an amazing ride, and I’m thankful for all the incredible people who have been riding along with me. I wouldn’t be able to do it without all of you.
When did you realize you wanted to live like this?
I didn’t fully realize until recently. However, now that I look back at my life, I notice that I’ve always known I have a need to be in constant movement. When people asked me the ‘what you wanna be when you grow up?’ question, my answer used to be ‘a truck driver’. The truck driver makes me think of flows – of people, of goods, of money, and, why not, of places. Flow is movement. The truck driver is also about movement, about going to places, meeting new people, seeing changes in landscapes, trying different food. In college I studied Geography and International Relations, always thinking about a truck driver kind of life – one day here, another there, then somewhere else. I guess I always knew I wanted to live in a constant flow, but only recently I had the courage to try it for myself.
How do you choose where to go next?
It really depends. Rationally, two main aspects help me decide:
1) Work. It was through work that I ended up in Angola (and loved it!) and the Philippines. When I don’t need to be in a specific location for field work but need to do a lot of online research or have conference calls, I choose places with better communications infrastructure (i.e. internet connection), such as Cape Town and Maputo. If I only need to write a report, I end up going to pretty calm and relaxed places – preferably by the beach or next to a river – being near water keeps my pisces soul calm and inspired.
2) Friends and Family. I often choose places where I have friends or family, because it’s always helpful to have a place to stay and a local contact while figuring out things to do in a particular country. That’s how I ended up in SE Asia. One of my best friends from grad school is Thai and we used to joke that if I couldn’t get a job in the US I would go to Bangkok and stay with her. That’s exactly what I did. Once there, I was adopted by her family (and vice-versa) who hosted me for a few weeks while I was acclimatizing to this new part of the world. Weddings are also a great excuse to catch a flight and visit a new country 🙂 This year, weddings took me to South Africa and Austria, and family was the excuse I needed to spend a few days in Italy.
Although work, friends and family are important part of my ‘where to go next’ decision making process, I must say that most of my movement around the globe has been based, so far, in Intuition. I find it hard to explain in words such an intangible factor, but this is the truth.
In 2016, intuition sent me to Southeast Asia and it ended up being the best decision ever, as it deeply changed me and the way I see and live my life. After a short period back in Brazil, I was ready to make a move and explore the world again. Even though I was dying to go back to Laos (and still am), I had a feeling it was time for Africa. I then headed to South Africa for a friend’s wedding and to visit another friend in Cape Town , where I ended up networking with people who recommended me for the project in Angola.
How do you afford this lifestyle?
Most people think I earn and spend tons of money. Let me tell you a secret… I spend less money traveling than when I was living in Sao Paulo, or in Boston. I travel on a budget, I don’t stay in fancy places, I don’t buy fancy clothes (by the way, I have a rule that I can only add things to my bag if I take things out, simple as that), I try to use public transportation whenever possible. I avoid alcohol (trust me, it’s going to make a huuuuge difference on your travel expenses if you stop drinking when traveling), I stay with friends when possible.
Oh, you want to know where my money comes from? I work. Yes, it is possible to work and travel at the same time. It’s not a 9-5 job and you need to be comfortable with not knowing how much money you’ll make next month, and very good in managing whatever amount you have in your bank account, but it works!
I’ve met people who travel full-time on a budget, and I admire them. I must admit that I sometimes need some comfort, like a foot massage, or get my nails done, or a really nice meal at a nice restaurant. Recently I needed a calm place to stay for a week, where I could relax while thinking about my life, about where to go and what to do next, a place where I could just stay with myself without worrying about my roommate, or food, or whatever. This place cost me more than what I’m used to spend, but I made a conscious decision to spend more, and it was 100% worth it.
Can you/do you sometimes find it hard to move between places?
Sometimes I do, especially when I need to leave a place I became very fond of. Recently, I had a hard time deciding where to go after Mozambique. Not because I didn’t know where, but because I really wanted to stay longer and explore more of the country. Unfortunately I couldn’t extend my visa and left the country one day before it expired.
What’s your most important piece of luggage you couldn’t get through a trip without?
I wish I could write something else, more poetic, romantic and less techy, but I need to be honest here. It is my smartphone. In my phone I have offline maps (with Maps.me), apps to help me find accommodation (Couchsurfing, Booking.com, Airbnb, Hostelworld, Agoda), apps to search for budget tickets (Hopper, Momondo, Skyscanner, and a few others), currency exchange (Currency XE), translator (Google, you saved me in Vietnam!), WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends. In addition, I’ve got a mobile plan that gives me unlimited data and messaging in most countries plus calls at an affordable rate in case I need to make or receive urgent calls. Another point is that a phone with a nice camera can be very handy, especially in places where I don’t feel comfortable showing off my camera.
If I couldn’t get through a trip without it? I’m sure I could, but it makes things easier and makes me feel safer.
What life routines/systems you maintain/find helpful when you’re traveling?
I try to meditate as often as possible – sometimes I meditate more, sometimes less, but it’s always on my mind and I find it very, VERY helpful to keep my mind and body happy with all the movement. I also have specific routines in specific places. For example, when in Cape Town I go to yoga almost every day, sometimes twice a day.
Not sure it’s a routine, but I consider this a system that I find very helpful: I have a packing system. I have colored packing bags in 3 different sizes, and since I started traveling 2 years ago, I follow almost the same packing system. Bottoms in the large black bag; tops in the large red; underwear, socks (1 pair only, I hate socks!), scarfs, in the medium red; linen, headlamp, towel, etc., in the medium black; chords, chargers in the small red; watercolor, painting stuff, notebook, in the small black. In addition, a white bag for my three pairs of shoes, and toiletries. I place them in the same order inside my backpack and I find it helps me keep track of everything – if there’s something missing it’s easier to notice. It’s also easier to find something without having to open everything in the middle of a bus station.
What kind of foods do you look for that make you feel good?
Food. Hahaha! This is a very good question! I have a few restrictions and I know I’m at my best when I stick to them, but I LOVE food and I LOVE trying local flavors. Where I felt healthier was in Southeast Asia. I could definitely live on noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In general, I try to go for what the locals eat – if not too adventurous for me (i.e. insects and frogs in Laos). I try to avoid fried food (must confess french fries in Angola were unavoidable), and alcohol. When it comes to food, however, exception is my best friend.
Have you found places that you just don’t like – that for one reason or another you’re not liking?
I have. The reasons for not liking are pretty random. I did’t like Johannesburg, in South Africa – if I can say that after spending only 3 days there – and would need a very good reason to go back to spend more time. I didn’t feel safe (and hey, I’m from Brazil) and there was a social tension in the air that made me very uncomfortable. Also didn’t like Vang Vieng, in Laos from the moment I got there (yep, it is possible not to like a place in Laos). The ‘young foreigners get drunk and party’ vibe didn’t work with my personal vibe and I couldn’t wait to leave.
I have learned, though, that the time I spend in places really affects my “liking” bar. I recently visited Vilanculos, in Mozambique, and didn’t feel comfortable or safe at all during the first night. All I could think of was ‘why did I spend all that money to fly over here if I could have just gone back to Tofo in the first place?’. My plan was to visit Bazaruto island the next day and leave asap, but the weather the next day was bad, forcing me to stay longer. And you know what? The following days changed my first impression completely. I met people who made me feel comfortable and safe, and I only left Vilanculos on the fourth day because I found a free ride back to Tofo.
What do you miss most about home?
This is such a tricky question! First, because I struggle to define ‘home’. I understand it as a place that gives me a sense of belonging, and I don’t really feel that I belong to where I come from. I have that ‘belonging’ feeling when I’m on the move, meeting new people, new cultures, new places. But if I think about what I miss the most about my native country, it gotta be pão de queijo, coxinha, and fresh juices. (Mom, I miss you too).
Are you happy? Would you rather lead other lifestyle?
I am VERY happy, and anyone who looks at pictures of myself before and after September 2016 will notice how happier and healthier I am today. Not that I wasn’t happy before, I was. It’s just that I always fought against this need to be on the move. I always tried to put myself in that box that my upbringing tried to impose over me: a job, get married, buy a house, have kids and a dog, and a nice car. In other words, live a ‘stable’ life in one specific place.
Do I get tired? Of course I do. But if I get tired I find a way to rest, to recharge, so I can keep on moving, and being happy.
For months, I’ve been drafting this post. I’ve been writing, rewriting, deleting, copying, editing, pasting. Reading, re-reading. Starting again.
For months, the idea of writing about silence crossed my mind. I took notes, wrote down ideas, key words, reflections. For months, while trying to write about silence I ended up experiencing it in various forms, and realized that translating the silence I wanted to talk about into words would be harder, waaaay harder, than feeling it.
I first thought about it in early February. Thanks to my amazing Argentine family, I spent a few days in Aconcagua National Park, surrounded by impressive mountains and under the eyes of Americas’ highest peak. In three days, I hiked from 1,000m above sea level to 4,200m. I felt my heart speed, my breath fail, the lack of oxygen, my legs became heavier, my mind played tricks with me. I also felt the power of nature, of the wind blowing in my face, of the cold when the sun hid behind the mountains or when it set allowing the stars to shine. Silence there was given.
South wall, from (almost) Plaza Francia
The valley on the way down
Aconcagua, seen from Park entrance
Then, in April I joined a ten-days meditation retreat also near mountains, miles and miles away from the Argentine-Chilean border, across the Atlantic, during my first ever visit to the Mother continent. There, amid 8-12 hours of daily meditation, noble silence was a rule. I felt my heart speed, my breath fail, gross sensations all over my body, my mind playing tricks. But just like in February, I also felt the power of nature, I watched the sun rise and set, I crossed paths with an enormous tortoise, I heard crickets, beetles, frogs, flies, sounds of life in various forms and sizes.
South African colors
After the 10-days silent retreat
South African color II
These two experiences were different and similar at the same time. They were both physically exhausting and mentally challenging.
Do I have the strength to take one more step? Will my body just collapse because I can’t breath? Are we there yet? I can’t feel my legs, my back hurts, this sitting position is extremely uncomfortable, I can’t hold it longer. Is the hour over, can I open my eyes yet?
Although the body was the first to complain, the mind was the real challenge. Because even when everything around is quiet, and still, and apparently calm, the mind can throw crazy parties in your head. That’s the real challenge when it comes to silence. The silence of the mind.
Mind, that thing that is always going from one idea to the other, covering distances as if they didn’t exist, putting together thoughts and memories, analyzing, judging, planning, strategizing. However, if it wasn’t for the power of the mind, I would have easily turned back, missing the astonishing view of the Aconcagua from Plaza Francia or the unexplainable feeling of sitting still for hours acknowledging the sensations in my body that I didn’t even know existed.
The months that followed these experiences were also filled with silence. Words not written nor spoken, ideas that populated my mind but never left the safe space of my own thoughts. They were months of reflection, of digesting the feelings, sensations, and thoughts that crossed and keep crossing my mind.
During these months, I acknowledged that silence is not necessarily the absence of sound. That it is quietude, stillness, tranquility, calmness. That it can take many forms, sometimes peaceful, sometimes anguished. From trekking in the Aconguagua, joining a meditation retreat to life in general, one can experience silence in many difference ways.
Sometimes I get into, what my friends call and I agree, my “Turtle Mode”. It’s basically when I withdraw myself from social interactions like a turtle withdraws from its surroundings by getting into its shell. In my case, it can happen when I don’t feel like going out and meeting people or even in the middle of a party or social event when I make my way to a quiet corner and stand there watching others, enjoying myself and my own silence, inside my imaginary shell. It doesn’t mean I’m not having fun or enjoying myself, it only means I am having fun while enjoying my silence.
It took me years to understand that I need my turtle mode. That this is actually my body and mind saying to me that silence is, for me at least, a basic need.
More recently, I was spending time with a group of friends, we had a full schedule with plenty of group activities and lots of socializing. Instead of listening to my self I kept going, I followed the schedule, I introduced myself to new people, kept conversations going, until I noticed I was becoming grumpy and even harsh towards those closer to me. After giving some thought, I realized I didn’t get into my turtle mode not even for five minutes during that period. Not respecting my need for silence almost ruined some of the most important relationships I have built over the years.
I realized that in order to respect myself and others around me silence is crucial. I don’t need to be up in the mountains or in a meditation retreat. I need silence to be able to listen to myself, to my mind, to my heart.
Silence is one of the few certainties I have in life. You should try to experience it too, it could change yours.
Want to experience silence in a “structured” way?
Aconcagua trekking: get in touch with Inka, they have an amazing team and the best infrastructure to explore the region.
Meditation retreat: there are plenty of retreats worldwide. If you want to learn more about Vipassana meditation, have a look at the website and find the location and dates that work better for you.
Days before I start a new year of my life, I’m finally able to finish this post looking back at 2017 and the lessons I’ve learned from months of traveling, experiencing, settling, working, and getting to know me better – and feeling comfortable with it 🙂
2017 was the year I (re)opened my heart and allowed love to flow (in and out) again. After surviving 2016 (how tough it was!), and traveling east, 2017 surprised me with lovely encounters with places, people, and experiences.
It was January 11th when I felt it was going to be a different year.
It was raining and I had been awake since 5am to catch the first of 3 buses of that day. I was extremely lucky that my travel partner decided, last minute, to continue her trip with me. Because when crossing the border I realized we’d swapped passports by mistake. I had hers, she had mine, and despite the same nationality we don’t look anything alike [another lesson learned from the road].
I can’t imagine how 2017 would have been if I was not able to cross to Laos on that January 11th. I wouldn’t have met the Mekong, nor the weavers of Xamtai, nor started a new habit, nor improved my motorbike skills, nor enjoyed sunsets and the best hash browns at the border with Cambodia. I’d probably have had a different experience in Northern Thailand, skipped Songkran (the water festival), and most important not met all the incredible people along the way.
If 2015 was the year I was forced to embrace uncertainty and deal with it without time to think or breath, and 2016 was when I embraced it and tried to add some structure to it (at least in my thinking), 2017 was when I allowed myself to live it beautifully, to enjoy the uncertainty of the paths I chose, and to experiment without fear of failing.
I spent 3 months in Laos, visited Northern Thailand, spent almost one month back in the US – covering both coasts and a bit of Louisiana and Mississippi -, introduced my mother and brother to one of my favorite spots in the world – where he indulged himself with all kinds of bugs and weird food – and had a blast having them visit my Thai family, and flew back to Brazil for a work project.
Being back in Sao Paulo after 7 years away was an interesting experience, to say the least. I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and was able to keep feeding my nomadic soul hopping from one house to the other, thanks to the generosity of friends who are more than family to me, until I found a perfect short-term place where I spent the last 5 months of the year.
2017 also taught me that sometimes the right people come into our lives at the wrong time, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than enjoy their company while it lasts. It also taught me that there are wrong people out there, and sometimes we have encounters with them right when we need to learn a few lessons.
It was also a year of love in terms of acceptance.
Acceptance of who and how I am. Of the fact that I don’t have a standard answer to the question “what do you do” or “where’s your home”. I understood that not having a standard answer to questions like these does not mean I don’t do the things I do with professionalism and passion, nor it means I don’t feel home in the places where I am. Regardless of what people might think (and judge), I know that I’m an excellent professional, daughter, sister, and friend who will always be there for the people I love and for the exciting and challenging projects that come along.
Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places covered in this post].
We left Phonsavanh very early and arrived in Thakhek in time to watch the sunset colors from the bus station before taking a tuktuk to the “city center”. We tried to stay at KGB (better known as the guesthouse next to Wang Wang – the place everyone rents motorbikes from) but it was full, so we walked to the Khammouane International Guesthouse and got a double room for 80k kip.
Next day we moved to KGB (35k kip/person) and sorted out our plan for the following days. It was the day where I literally fell in love with the Mekong. Love at first sight. Love at first sunset, that hit me, and hit me hard.
The Mekong is the 4th largest river in Asia, and the 12th in the world. It runs all the way from China, draws most of the border of Laos and Thailand, goes into Cambodia, and meets the sea in the Vietnamese coast. From wherever I watched its waters run, it seemed calm and peaceful, but I’d heard how tricky it can be, so I was always extra careful and controlled my willingness to swim far from its banks.
A friend once told me that he also had the impression it was calm and to easy to cross. So he tried to swim from Thailand to Laos just to find himself in trouble. Little he knew… the current took him far and he found himself in Laos territory, with no money, no passport, and no strength to cross back to Thailand. Luckily he managed to go back, this was a risk I wasn’t willing want to take. (Steve, I’m looking at you!)
After watching the sun setting over Thailand, with the Mekong in front of me, I met the French who meditate, and we decided to do the Thakhek loop together. Karen and I were settled on going for the long loop, and the French agreed to join us.
First sunset in Thakhek, from bus station
First Sunset in the ❤ Mekong ❤ – Thankek
Another sunset in Thakhek, Thailand on the other side
I’m sure they wondered what the heck they were doing following two Brazilians who barely knew how to drive a motorbike (don’t worry mom, now I know – and hopefully will get my license soon). I was confident Vietnam winding roads were a good training though.
Wang Wang is where 90% of the tourists heading to the loop hire motorbikes from. They are very helpful and provide good maps and info on both short and long loops. Also, it’s worth it to check the wall where travelers leave their impressions of the loop, places to go, places to be cautious of.
I have noticed foreigners tend to drive way faster than locals (not only in Laos, but in Vietnam and Thailand as well), and some of them get in trouble. Hey everyone! There might be a reason why locals drive slowly in winding roads full of gravel and sand… It’s also easier to enjoy the beautiful landscape with you go slowly. Just don’t go too slow when there are sand banks on the road… I learned it the hard way, and thankfully neither me nor Karen got hurt (I only had a few bruises as she fell on top of me. For the record – and for her mom – she had zero scratches).
Back to the loop, we left Thakhek around 9am, towards Xe Bang Fai cave. It’s part of the long loop and it’s no surprise why most people choose to skip it. It’s far! Not only far, it’s hard to get to. Our clothes and faces were literally red-brown from the dust of the road.
After long hours driving, we finally arrived in Bualapha where we spent the night (80k kip double room). The next day we headed to the cave. Wow! Looking back now, I don’t know how I managed to drive there. There were certain points Karen had to get off, cause I wasn’t sure I could do it by myself. At least I knew the French were there to give me some moral support – and laugh at me. I did it. And it was 100% worth it.
Xe Bang Fai is one of the world’s largest river caves. It goes all the way to Vietnam. And it’s quite a hidden gem. We were the only ones there. The 4 of us, our guide, a canoe, bats, and silence. Three hours of absolute silence while we entered this amazing place. Price was 60k kip/boat, for 4 people.
Faith on the Thakhek loop
The road to Xe Bang Fai
Chinese poses and dirt
The water as we approached Xe Bang Fai
Our transport into the cave
Xe Bang Fai
From Xe Bang Fai you have to drive back towards Bualapha, where we had spent the night, in order to continue the loop. The way to Thalang includes two river crossings – including driving the motorbike into a canoe, and staying on it in order to keep the balance. Quite a challenge, I’d say…
We all survived the canoes, but our mistake was to continue towards our next stop on the same day. We drove on the Ho Chi Min trail (and that was when I was finally able to answer Esteban’s question) while the sun was setting. It was getting dark and cold, and we were to optimistic thinking we’d find a guesthouse in the next village (Ban Langkhang). Well, we didn’t; there were two guesthouses there and both were full. We had to drive ~70km more in the dark, in the cold, until we got to Gnommalat.
Lesson (that should already had been) learned: never underestimate your time driving, the cold of Laos nights, and your tiredness. Finally, we found a guesthouse a few km before Gnommalat. We were exhausted!
Next day, well enough rested, we continued to Thalang. The road goes through a dammed area, offering beautiful/sad views of a reservoir landscape. The blue sky followed us all the way to Sabaidee Guesthouse. This time we arrived early and took advantage of the time we had there to get ourselves drunk with pastis and to improve our pétanque techniques. The French didn’t really like the fact that two Brazilians playing pétanque for the first time beat them a couple of times. But I have to be honest that I don’t remember much about that evening. By then, I hadn’t been drinking alcohol for a while (you won’t believe how much money you save if you don’t drink alcohol while traveling. Thanks Carolina!) and a few shots of pastis were enough to (almost) knock me down. Next day we decided to have a rest (and recovery) day before continuing our journey to the famous Konglor cave.
During our rest day we met a bunch of other French people – they really like Laos, it seems – and learned more about the secrets of pétanque et pastis 😉 . We also met some interesting characters, including one who I’d meet again in Thakhek, who used to work for MAG. He told me stories about Laos and the endless UXOs that still exist in the country.
The day after, we headed to Nahin, where we spent the night and from there visited Konglor (Sanhak Guesthouse, 50k kip person/night). I didn’t want to go inside the cave. Karen took advantage of her Asian looking heritage and went further without paying the foreigner’s fee. I, on the other hand, in addition to not wanting to pay, didn’t want to pollute my memories of a Laotian cave. Xe Bang Fai already impressed me in such a way that I preferred to keep that memory instead. Maybe, when I go back to Laos, I’ll go inside Konglor, but it just didn’t feel right then.
There’s another way of getting to Konglor instead of going all the way to Nahin. A few km before our guesthouse in Thalang there’s a left turn that leads to the other side of the cave. There, it’s possible to pay a boat to take you all the way to the other side. We met two people on motorbikes who did that. They said it was quite hard to get to the cave, but seemed pretty pleased with the experience.
On the way back I had my first and only fall. Already mentioned above and here. Nothing serious plus a lesson: if you drive too slow when you see a sand bank… good luck!
The next day, we were on our way back to Thakhek. It’s a pretty boring drive that includes around 120km on the main road, which is a straight line. Stops to stretch your legs and give your butt a rest are highly recommended.
Once back from the loop, we stayed again at KGB and did our first visa run to Thailand. Usually people do the other way round, from Thailand to its neighboring countries, to extend their stay in Thailand. While Brazilians can stay up to 90 days there, most nationalities get only 30 – which is definitely not enough to travel the whole country.
The visa run from Thakhek to Nakhon Phanom was cheap and easy. We took a bus at the bus station (18k kip), left Laos, entered Thailand, said goodbye to the bus driver, crossed the street, left Thailand, paid the US$30 visa fee (for Brazilians, price changes according to nationality. Also for Brazilians, don’t forget to have you yellow fever vaccination card with you as you’ll need it to enter Thailand, even if it’s only for a few minutes), entered Laos, took another bus, arrived at the bus station. In less than 2 hours we were back in Thakhek with another stamp in our passports, and ready to pack and continue south.
The ride to Pakse (20k kip) took us around 7 hours. You never know how long it’s really going to take. It depends a lot on the driver and on how many times passengers ask the bus to stop so they can pee. That’s right. Suddenly someone screams something in the back, the driver pulls away, everybody gets off and find themselves a spot in the nature. We heard stories of drivers who stopped on the way to get their hair cut, or to continue a board game they’d started the day before. That said, the trip from Thakhek to Pakse can take up to 12 hours. We were lucky.
In Pakse we stayed at a guesthouse by the river (Senoda River Guesthouse 25-30k kip/person, depending on the accommodation) – and went back there every time we were back in town. It was simple, but off the main road and pretty calm. As most places in Laos, there was no hot shower, but at the end of the day you’ll be happy to take a fresh shower and cool down a bit.
Another place we became “regulars” was the Indian restaurant by the main road, across from Ms Noy motorbike rental shop where we rented our motorbike to go on the Bolaven Plateau loop (on Part III of my Laos’ travel notes). The restaurant is pretty good and prices are cheap. Another great surprise from Laos: amazing Indian food!
Ms Noy is married to Yves, a Belgian guy who fell in love with her (and Laos) a couple of years ago. Together, they run the rental shop and provide info sessions about the trip to Bolaven plateau. They are very well organized and trustworthy. I’d definitely recommend renting a motorbike from them. Attention: if you’re running on a short schedule, you should book your bike in advance.
Goodies sold on the bus to Pakse
Burger Kong, anyone?
All you can buy, but the cat
Brazilian feelings in Laos
Two nights in Pakse and we headed to the Four Thousand Islands, known in Lao by Si (four) Phan Don. The original plan was to stay there a couple of days, maybe 4, maybe 5… but it turned out to be 14!
My stay in Don Det deserves a post for itself. There, my love for Laos grew stronger and I could see myself staying, staying, staying. When people ask me what I did there, I don’t really know what to tell. I stayed there. I rode a bike there. I found my “private” river beach that I sometimes shared with a family of buffalos. I stayed at Mama Mon & Papa’s guesthouse, where I ate the best hash browns I’ve ever had. I watched some of the most beautiful sunsets of my life. I felt I could have stayed…
In the 14 days Karen and I spent in Don Det, we rented bikes (10k kip/day) and explored both islands, Don Det and Don Khone. We met Mike and his wife Bountip, who run The Boat House; we went kayaking in the Mekong, and we just didn’t want to leave – as you can probably tell by now.
Don Det can be a party place where foreigners go to get drunk and high. But there are alternatives to that, and places to go that don’t include mushroom shakes or high doses of alcohol. Don Khone seemed to me as a more “family-like” place to stay, with more options for “boutique” guesthouses, but I was more than happy with Mama Mon’s bungalow by the river.
Room with a view
Restaurant with a view
Sunset on the sunset side of Don Det
(not so) private beach
How to learn Lao
Favorite view, Don Khone from the bridge
The Mekong also falls
Biking can be dangerous
Private beach parking
Our hosts at Mama Mon
Mike preparing a delicious fish
Mekong from the bridge
Mapping the islands
Bridge connecting Don Det & Don Khone
After 14 days, and with our visas about to expire again, we left Don Det, and headed to Pakse once again.
If anyone asks me what my favorite place in Laos is, it’s going to be hard to choose, but my heart will go straight to the islands surrounded by the river that stole my heart and that I now carry on my skin. ❤ Mekong ❤
My ‘must dos’ in Don Det & Don Khone:
Go kyaking in the Mekong (160k kip for the day, including breakfast and lunch): yes, it’s full of tourists, but it’s beautiful too, and you get the chance to paddle right on the border line with Cambodia. Most tourists go to see the pink dolphins (which we saw), but having visited the Amazon a couple of times, it was no big deal for me.
Rent a bicycle (10k kip/day) and ride around the islands, specially Don Khone. From east to west, west to east, get shortcuts, get lost. There’s NO need to pay every time you cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khone. Just say you’re not going to the waterfall, and keep going. (but if you do go to the waterfall, you’ll have to pay it anyway)
Have breakfast (hash browns!!!!), lunch or dinner at Mama Mon’s. The food is delicious, portions are huge, and price is incredibly cheap.
Eat the burger at the burger place I can’t remember the name… tsc tsc tsc… I just remember it was delicious!
It’s been almost 3 months since I landed in my home country. It’s the first time since May 2015 that I know I’ll have the same address for more than 6 weeks.
After almost four years away – with sporadic visits only – the first question family and friends ask me is “can we meet? I wanna see you before you go”, to what I reply “no worries, I’ll be here for a while”. Then when we manage to meet, the question is “how does it feel to be back?” and I struggle to find the right answer.
Now, almost 3 months later, I’m able to translate into words what I feel about this question. Not that it helps to understand my feelings, but it helps to process them. I’m not back; I’m here.
If I was back, wasn’t I supposed to have a sense of belonging? I do navigate the neighborhood where I lived during most of my time here with a lot of confidence. I know street names, reference points, that supermarket, this flower shop. Still, not enough to feel I’m back.
So the question should be “how does it feel to be here?”, shouldn’t it?
On being back– When I think of it, my mind goes to places already known, like my mom’s house. There I know where (almost) everything is and how things work. But if I say I’m going back to my mom’s house, I get an immediate idea that I’m going back to stay there. So I rephrase, and say I’m visiting her, or that I’m going to her place. I don’t think that this thing of being back applies to me.
There’s also the idea that “back” means regress (the action of returning to a former or less developed state, according to the dictionary), and I definitely do not think I’m regressing. On the contrary. I’m a completely different person from the one who left Sao Paulo 7 years ago, who was away from Brazil for almost 4 years, someone who felt real love for a country where she doesn’t understand more than 7 words – actually, more than 7… I can count to twenty and say a few words like thanks, hello, beautiful, rice, sticky rice (very important!), and a few other things. The past few years might look charming to outsiders, but they were tough. They forced me to revisit my values, my dreams, myself. No, I’m not the same person I used to be.
I don’t intend on staying in Sao Paulo. Those close to me know I wasn’t even planning on being here, ever again. Lesson learned: never say never – or ever again.
There’s also another nuance on this idea of being back. I don’t think I know this place anymore. I’m not back to something familiar to me. Yes, the streets have the same names (at least most of them), I still know how to get to the climbing gym (and still find it far as hell, still, I go and love it there), or where to find the best pizza in the world (no, it’s not in Italy, nor the Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang). But I feel like I was a foreigner. The city where I lived for 10 years, no longer exists. And the same way that I changed, so did my friends. With a few exceptions, I feel like I’m getting to know people I thought I’d known, and the truth is, I don’t think we’d if it was our first contact.
So no. I’m not back.
On being here – when I realized I’d be in Sao Paulo for a while, I decided I’d have to live the city in a different way. The decision to be here was very well thought out. Despite people thinking I’m impulsive, I’m actually pretty intense on my decision-making processes, weighting pros and cons, trade-offs, and identifying what the decision in question would add to my life. When I decided to book that ticket for June 8th I knew I’d need a different approach to being in the city I left saying I’d never return to.
I guess the main thing about being ok with being here was a rule I imposed to myself: no complaining (because I know paulistas complain about everything, and I really don’t want to become one of those people who are never happy or satisfied).
Rule #1 – do not complain.
Second agreement with myself: get out of my comfort zone. Territorial and sensorial comfort zones. I force myself to go to new and different places, mostly alone. I join zumba classes in the middle of the street. I ask if I can borrow the egg (shaker) and play with this band I’ve never seen before.
Rule #2 – get uncomfortable.
Third rule: take care of myself. Eat healthy and exercise regularly – even if it means waking up at 6am to meditate and stretch, or to commute for 1 hour to the climbing gym and be back home around 11pm. No excuses. Luckily I was able to find a place to live pretty close to work, so at least I have my morning walk every day. Mens sana in corpore sano. I have to spend way more time in front of the computer that I’d like to, and the only way to survive it, is to take care of this machine that carries me around.
Rule #3 – exercise.
Following these 3 rules it is easier to be here and to experience the present of being here. It is being in the present that I’m able to notice how this city changed – for the good and the bad.
After years away, Sao Paulo is not the city I was used to. I see more same-sex couples holding hands, I see women saying f**k off to catcallers and not crossing the street every time they notice a group of men standing on the sidewalk (yes… that’s something women worried – still do – in cultures like mine), I see public spaces being appropriated by people more often, and I think traffic is better than it used to be (I have more friends now that don’t have cars, or only drive on weekends).
On the other hand, I sense a strange and heavy energy in the air, I never feel completely safe when walking alone after it gets dark, I put my phone in one pocket, my bank cards in the other one, and leave my wallet in my purse. I almost never answer a phone call when I’m walking in certain neighborhoods, and after my first trip to the Sunday street market, I realized I can’t buy coconut water, sugar cane juice, or pastel to everyone that asks me to, because if I do, I go back home without my groceries. There are way more people living on the streets of Sao Paulo then when I left the city in 2011, people with their entire families, kids, babies, grandparents, pets. Some blame the crisis. I blame the lack of shame from the Brazilian political class.
I saw poverty in Laos. Poverty is everywhere. But there’s something about urban poverty, about Sao Paulo’s poverty that I can’t still name. Being here, made me even more aware of how countries like mine are unequal.
At the same time, being here allowed to reconnect with the Brazilian openness and warmth towards others. Despite our illegitimate government, our unequal and sometimes fascist society, there are so many initiatives with the intention to change the way things have been since I don’t even know when. Being here, helped reconnect with hope for my country.