Normal Vacation

Roadside Market
Route 13, Laos
March 24, 2009

It was a call from the Census Bureau that brought my itinerary together. An unfamiliar number flashed on the caller-ID screen:

"Hello, is this David Wong?"


"Hello, David. This is the Seattle branch of the U.S. Census Bureau. You applied for temporary work as a census-taker this past January. We now have a two-month position opening up, starting April 9. Are you still interested in working for us?"

This was unexpected. I had a ticket leaving the very next morning: a flight from Seattle to Bangkok. My bag was already packed. Until this moment my plan had been to travel around Asia over the next four months.

"Uh... can I call you back with my decision? I'll have to take some time to think about it."

"Of course. We allow 48 hours from this conversation for you to let us know."

Now what should I do? I had been loitering about Seattle for the past several months. Part of the reason I decided to leave was because I hadn't found work. (Not that I'd been looking all that hard.) The greater factor was Mom's health. Her cancer was the impetus for my return to Seattle last autumn. She seemed to be holding steady over the past months. "Improved" would be far too hopeful. I wouldn't even go as far as to say "stable". But, there hadn't been apparent decline over the recent months, either. I made the decision that, with little going on in Seattle, it was an okay time to leave and be back out on the road for a few months.

Then, all of a sudden I had this job offer. The pay wouldn't be that great, but having any routine might give me focus and make me feel more comfortable staying on in Seattle. Taking the job could keep me close to family over a difficult time. But then, choosing to stay would be akin to throwing the flight ticket away. What to do?

That job offer came right when I was on my way over to Mom and Dad's home. My plans for the evening had been to take each of them out somewhere separately, spend a couple hours together, and say a one-on-one "farewell". Instead, we'd have quite the topic for conversation and potentially no "farewell" necessary.

I asked Dad where he'd like to spend time together over something light. My real dinner plans were with Mom later in the evening so wanted to preserve my appetite. He suggested Krisy Kreme: they were having a promotion selling cups of coffee for a nickel. That suited me fine. I drove us down the hill to the nearest branch. With doughnuts and paper cups atop the table between us, I weighed possibilities aloud with him--but could arrive at no conclusion.

Mom had heard of a restaurant on Capitol Hill she wanted to try, Barrio. Duck tacos, yellowtail, caprianhas, and creme brulee: Mmm. The food and conversation were both fine, but I spent most time with Mom wavering between options as well. It wasn't until somewhere before dessert I hit on the plan. Why not do both? There was no reason I couldn't abbreviate my trip and take that job. I was already packed and prepared to leave in few hours. April 9 was yet three weeks away. That would allow time enough for me to enjoy being back in Asia, to enjoy being away from Seattle and get out on the road for awhile. I could use the ticket to Bangkok. Then, what I'd earn in the subsequent two months of work would more than pay for a ticket back.

Luang Prabang

So, I've been in Laos for a few days now. I made my way across Thailand to the border near Vientiane. Most of my time has been up in the city of Luang Prabang, a town of colonial charm hospitable to travelers. It's nice to be in a familiar location where I can get around by memory: I was traveling around Laos at this same time two years ago. Convenient, as I didn't bring any guidebooks for this trip.

I love being back here. There's a certain relaxed attitude I've found across so many Buddhist areas I've visited: Mongolia, Tibet, Burma... Perhaps it's just coincidence, but there's a common easy-going nature I find in the way people interact in these places. There's something in people that feels unhurried and unconcerned with maximizing either time or profit. I had always assumed that this came from a common religious outlook, but--refelcting now--I suppose these regions also share the status of being dirt-poor.

Picking up where I left off in another corner of French Indochina, I've incorporated remnants of French colonial cuisine--good coffee and pastries are everywhere--into my daily routine. I'm again splurging a bit on a nicer hotel. Dollars go far so I've found it worthwhile to pay a little more for a standard more comfortable than I ordinarily would. I'm in Room No. 1 of Villa Shayada--a hotel both cozy and immaculate. Balancing long bus trips with the odd pampering hotel seems to have become my latest phase.

Tomorrow morning, I'll continue along north. I have a ticket for a sleeper-bus direct to Kunming. Being in Southwest China will be a lot of fun. A couple former Urumqi ex-pats have moved to Kunming. Both Logan and Fausto left Xinjiang over a year ago to transfer to Yunnan U. On top of that, Susi and Nikolaj--who taught English for a couple years in Urumqi--will be making a short visit from Denmark. Another UUU reunion!

Though I'm condensing a lot of activity and ground covered into this trip, it does feel unusual to me knowing that I'll be away for such a shorter period than I normally would. I'll be gone from Seattle for just shy of three weeks. It somehow doesn't feel right to have a limit on time to explore. Sigh... I suppose I've skewed my own expectations with the way I've approached travel these past years. As Greg pointed out when I said my farewells to his family upon leaving Seattle: "Wow, you've decided to be away for only three weeks? That's like a normal vacation."

And I suppose I should get used to "normal" vacations--given the prospect of being a working man once again.