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The Joy of Getting Lost

An illustration based on getting lost on the Point Pleasant boardwalk on the Jersey Shore.

Photo: James Steinberg

Mekong Zen

It takes me a long time to find a bike in Luang Prabang. When I do, it’s because a tall young American woman with unwashed hair is shouting at an old Laotian man by the gutter.

“I won’t pay. Do you hear me? I won’t pay it! This might be a bad bike. Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

As far as I can tell, Luang Prabang—and all of Laos—is a fairly serene place. This rant, while perhaps routine in midtown Manhattan, seems almost violent here.

The old man hunches over a little further and fills the bicycle’s tire from an ancient foot pump. I cross the street.

“Can I rent a bike here?” I ask gingerly. The old man looks up, then lowers his watery eyes and continues pumping.

The woman spins to face me. “Make sure he gives you a good one. I went through hell in Vientiane with a bad bike. He’s not charging me 5,000 kip when I don’t know what I’m getting.” I do the calculation: 5,000 kip is about 60 cents.

The old man finishes filling the tire. The woman starts in again. “Just take it,” he says. Triumphant, she throws her leg over and rides away.

“She talk too much.”

“Do you have another bike?”

“Come.” We go inside, through a kitchen where a young woman is preparing lunch. The air smells of garlic. Meat simmers. We enter a room filled with broken furniture, clothes, an old sewing machine. Several bikes hang from hooks. “Which you want?”

They all look the same. I shrug. His stringy arms lift a red bike.

For three days I pedal around town. I eat a wonderful watercress soup. I watch the sunset from atop Mount Phousi. At Wat Xieng Thong, I meet a monk with a long scar down the side of his face. When no one is near, he whispers about his friend who can take me up the Mekong River.

Down by the water I find the man with a wiry mustache beside a wooden plank canoe powered by a lawn-mower engine strapped to a long stick. It’s the slowest boat on the river.

I’ve not always had the gift to realize when I’m happy, but grinding upriver, it’s easy to know I am.

A few days later I’m at the airport, waiting for my plane to arrive. The only other passenger, an Englishwoman, eventually speaks. “I saw a most extraordinary young woman. At the Royal Palace Museum. She was shouting. Can you imagine? Shouting! In Laos?”

“What was she saying?”

“She was shouting—‘I want five minutes! Five minutes! I’m leaving tomorrow! Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand what I’m saying?’ They threw her out and she rode away on a bicycle, still shouting.”

I look out across the valley into the Annamese Cordillera, the shadows long. The arriving plane barely clears a high peak and it dawns on me—wherever you go, there you are. —Andrew McCarthy

End of the Affair

My girlfriend and I were on a trip through Spain and Portugal. The plan was to see some sights and maybe find a reason not to break up. We’d been foundering, and it was nobody’s fault. We just had different needs. She needed to be away from me and I needed to be away from her.

But we were stuck together, at least for this trip. We had some good times, but the sadness had seeped in. We began to travel more like buddies than lovers. That took some pressure off, but it gave everything a strange taste. We had been passionate once. Or at least I thought we had. We spent a week in Lisbon, a few weeks in a tiny fishing village, and arrived in Seville in a rather numb state. We walked around, looking at stuff and people, but taking nothing in. I think we were planning for the singlehood that lay ahead of us when we got home. Then, for a few hours, everything changed. Strolling along a festively lit street, we noticed some bars down an alley. We had no plans and no connections in the city, so we turned. We walked past some people lounging at plastic tables, and as we did, one of them called my name.

I wheeled around and saw a guy I’d known in college. We hadn’t really been friends; in fact, I’d always gotten a sense that he didn’t like me that much, but we’d had some funny, drunken conversations and I’d always thought he had real charisma and cool, so I never minded the mildly hostile undertones. But none of that came to mind now. Here was the strange charge of being in a foreign city and randomly meeting somebody you know. We had a beer and caught up, and then he offered to take us to see the “real flamenco,” not the tourist stuff. Ed led us down a few more alleys into a tiny bar with a stage and there, for the next few hours, everything was bliss. We drank and cheered the dancers and I could tell my girlfriend was elated and suddenly, so was I. We looked at each other and we were happy and happy together. Maybe the spark was still there. Maybe we could work it out. Everything was so joyful and sexy in this bar, why couldn’t we carry that feeling with us? I looked over at Ed and he was grinning. Maybe the odd vibes had always only been in my head. He had delivered us here. He had brought us to the place of love and freedom.

Of course, the night had to end, and it did. There was no exchange of numbers or addresses. We would honor the marvelous coincidence of this evening. But even as we started to walk away I could feel the mood cracking apart. By the next morning my girlfriend and I would be back snug in our breakup spiral. And the last words Ed spoke to me that night would echo in my ears.

“You know, Lipsyte,” he said, “it’s no coincidence I saw you here tonight.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because of all the friends and acquaintances I had in college, you’re the only person I’ve never thought of once.” —Sam Lipsyte

Armchairs in Tel Aviv

I am not sure there is such a thing as getting lost. Sometimes it just takes more time to get someplace. And along the way, what marvels you behold. If I had not turned down the wrong street in Tel Aviv, I would not have seen the two perfect pink armchairs on the sidewalk with a dog named Krupnik stitting nearby. Then I really would have been lost. —Maira Kalman

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