it is what it is

You can’t get anywhere quickly in Laos. This is generally true across SE Asia, but it’s especially true in Laos. Tourists can fly from one major city/tourist area to the next, but you miss everything that’s in-between. And that’s the thing that differentiates “vacation” from “travel,” I think: vacation is much more about reveling in a final destination; travel is just as much about, well, the travel. So for three weeks in Laos and Cambodia, the way we got from one place to the next was either by slow bus or very bumpy van.

In Cambodia, some of the roads resemble country highways; in Laos, especially in the mountains, a mile of paving would continuously alternate with a mile of gravel and dirt. Even on the more established roads, cows and goats have the right-of-way, which means a lot of slamming on the brakes to avoid them (or other cars/vans, which pass by pulling out into the lane and putting on their horn to warn oncoming cars that they’re going for it). It takes longer to get from place to place, it’s harder and more arduous, but I don’t necessarily think it’s “worse” than, say, massive freeway travel. It’s different.

Qualitative judgments largely stem from expectations, and whether an experience rises above or falls below them. If you think that a trip is going to take six hours and it takes twelve, well, that’s worse. If you think about how the same amount of miles in the United States would only take one hour, then you spend a lot of time thinking about how much “worse” (or a waste of time) the trip is. If you’re used to optimizing every single moment and getting anxious when things take any longer than they absolutely must, then you’re probably going to hate every moment. But if you prepare yourself for the fact that a trip is going to take six hours, and it will be the major event of the day, then it just is what it is.

Instead of dreading these van rides, or even just tolerating them, I grew to….not like them, per se, but almost float through them, in a way I haven’t really experienced driving or traveling since high school. My current driving is always filled with podcasts or conversation or concentrating on not sliding off the Montana highway. When I fly or take a train, I’m writing or reading. But there’s nothing to do on these van rides. You can’t even look at your phone for longer than 20 seconds, lest you get even more queasy, and it’s not as if your phone has service. So I downloaded handfuls of albums to Spotify, and then I just stared out the window and listened to music like a teen.

And it was….glorious? I’ve written before about spending more time hanging out with your own mind, and this was a perfect mix of that and just listening to music without distraction, which is something I’ve found myself doing less and less — a product of the rise of podcasts, I think, and the decline of “organized” music ownership. (Infinite music, it turns out, somehow doesn’t encourage infinite listening).

For me, there was something substantively different about giving my mind permission to wander for, say, the 20 minutes before a flight takes off and the six hours it took to go from one town to the next (other rides were between four and six hours, and we did a total of six of them). I wasn’t really thinking about the larger topics that have been dominating my brain lately, or planning what I was going to write. I spent a good amount of time in my memory, or just staring ahead, absorbing. Which is why it made me feel like a teen, when I’d put on my VERY COOL Discman during long drives — with my family, or on the bus to games, which were between two and six hours away — and think without directive, without real stress.

You don’t have to go to Laos to get that sort of space for your mind. You could go outdoors for a significant amount of untethered time, or you could meditate (which isn’t that far, ends-wise, from staring into space for six hours). You could take a Greyhound somewhere and turn off your phone. You could garden or walk your dog for two hours; I bet your dog would like it. You don’t have to do any of those things, of course. It almost feels wasteful, doesn’t it — or at least that’s how my programming still wants to think of it, and it’s telling that the ability to find that sort of time and do nothing with it feels like a real privilege. But I saw a lot of very beautiful things in Laos and Cambodia. But that blank space might have been the most valuable, most truly replenishing things I’ve done in years.

I’m back in Montana and back in the (still frozen) swing of things, which includes prepping for my next story, which involves talking to a lot of people who’ve grown up and/or gone to college or currently live in the fascinating town of Waco, Texas. (If that’s you, too, send me a message! I want to talk to you too!)

I’m also lining up interviews for a currently secret project about burnout — if you’ve experienced or are experiencing burnout and feel like it would be valuable to talk about it, click this link (and send it along to others who you’d love to hear talk about it).

I read a bunch of books while not staring out the window in Laos, the best of which were H is for Hawk (you might not think you’d be interested in this sort of thing; you’re wrong!); Washington Black and In True Blood, which I’m quietly ashamed it took me this long to actually read.

I read zero articles while gone, but here are the best/most compelling I’ve found since returning:

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