Under these circumstances, I accumulated several months in this tiny town despite its dusty heat, high humidity and relative lack of air conditioners. Its many advantages more than compensated for the weather. Even these climatic hardships weren’t totally negative. The dust and high humidity create spectacular sunsets over the Mekong River, the sun slowly disappearing among the Thai foliage of the other shore, leaving as a short lived reminder a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and yellows searching for a comfortable bed among puffy clouds.
Some of my visits were just overnight stops, others significantly longer. Invariably, they were joyous. Just before going to sleep, when it is dark and quiet, I can still walk through Vientiane’s beloved streets; I can still smell and sip its sublime coffee; I can still eat a baguette; though everything at the wrong time of the day. Though if taking into account the differences in time zones, my timing is perfect.
Thus it isn’t a surprise Vientiane – and Laos – played an important role in The Cross of Bethlehem. Several key events in the book took place there. The dramatic trip which begins and ends the book began at its morning market. Not less important is the fact that after that night at Udon Thani’s terminus when the book was born, I spent much of the subsequent stay in Vientiane – officially waiting for a Chinese Chinese visa – writing what became later the backbone of the book. The reader may be reading about Israel, Palestine, Europe or even American corporations, but for me those chapters belong to a simple and attractive guesthouse, so close to the Mekong, you can almost hear its silent flow.
Vientiane strangely fitted for this unasked role. In several places it has been described as one of the centers of the 19th century Great Game modern version. I do not comment directly on that in the book, but people like Sam, the owner of a certain guesthouse, Adi, Mohammed and other personages in the book certainly support this claim. Others, no less dramatic and interesting, didn’t make it into the book, yet they certainly helped in creating my own version of Vientiane.
Vientiane – like Laos – is slow paced. Experiencing it to the level described in the book takes time. Time to learn the sights: landmarks and streets, river and greenery. Time to know the denizens and learn how to speak with them. Time to learn the types of travelers passing through. Yet, if paying attention to the details and avoiding upmarket hotels and restaurants, which create cultural bubbles, one can decipher and enjoy the city in a reasonable amount of time. Then the city would walk within you wherever you go.
I’m writing these words from an almost perfect conceptual antipode. The largest high-altitude city in the world, where the broken terrain is never flat enough to balance a marble, where cold – weather-wise and human-wise - reigns unmolested and the main river in town - a narrow and anemic stream carrying mainly laundry soap – has been covered by a crowded avenue. Yet, even here Vientiane walks with me, appearing always as a calm comment to a violent reality. Bad encounters can happen also in good places; these are unrelated entities. When those bad encounters happen it is important to remember the good things related to that place. Then, a fragile balance is reached, with the good memories walking us towards new destinations. That’s what travelers do.
Considering all these it was difficult to choose suitable material. One consideration was it to be representative and interesting; but this needed being balanced by the need not to reveal too much on the plot of the book; after all I need to answer to the publisher afterwards.
The book isn’t a travelogue, though much of it can be read as such; it describes many travels under unusual conditions. More than a travelogue, less than an academic treatise, The Cross of Bethlehem let’s you travel into places we all know exist, but few of us venture exploring. Unless we are true travelers. Would you take this journey with me?