Travel Essay: Laos

Bigg Cave Tour by

Jess D. Taylor

I’m in the middle of nowhere, Laos, alone and aching. He is dead, almost a year now, and the other one, the newer one, has lodged himself into my heart like a piece of shrapnel.

He is supposed to be here. Both he’s could actually be here, but I’m talking about my new boyfriend, Kevin, who would want to linger over a Beer Lao with every friendly Aussie we bump into. The gone one, Dennis, would still be sleeping off last night’s debauchery. Both would slow me down—and I’m moving fast. The mountain bike tires are too fat for these dusty unpaved roads, the kids scream and shout for waves, the heat feels like a horny lover who won’t leave me alone, but still, I move.

The Lonely Planet tells me about a cave tour way out here that is sometimes open, sometimes not, but totally worth the chance! I’ve gotten used to the idea that Kevin isn’t coming to meet me, though he kept me adrift on his deceit all the way to the airport: “After I earn some more money I’ll catch a flight and track you down, I promise.”

It takes two hours to find the hand-painted wooden sign that reads BIGG CAVE with an arrow pointing into the endless green of rice paddies. I lock my bike to a rickety fence and feast on water, wipe my sweaty red face with a damp handkerchief, and follow the overgrown trail to a small round hut perched next to a beige river. As my mind volleys between the bliss of cool water and the terror of water snakes, a man appears and greets me with a big gap-toothed smile. He’s built like Dennis, all sinewy muscle and bright eyes, and introduces himself as Sommai.

A woman and three young children are seated around a low table, staring at me. I look down at my muddy feet, my torn-up Tevas. How funny it must be to them, these tourists who have the money to travel across the world but not enough money for decent shoes. Sommai unfolds a diagram and in his limited but ambitious English tells me that it was drawn by Germans. They’ve noted in the lower right hand corner: You must do this opportunity! So amazing! Please know: You WILL get wet!

Wet sounds good. Wet is why I brought Tevas and only Tevas on this trip. I shake my head yes as Sommai hands me a rusty headlamp and straps a battery box to my waist.

The womb of the cave is cool, clean and quiet—except for a few surprised squeaks from what appears to be a family of albino rats. “No problem,” Sommai says when he sees me cringe. We creep along until he is waist deep in the water, which from the orb of my headlamp looks like a vat of oil. He mimes for me to put my backpack on my head. The water feels like a bath turning tepid, and I flinch when it hits my ribs, pools under my arms. I remember getting busted by the police for skinny-dipping in the Caribbean, Dennis’s Spanish so atrocious that they laughed and let us go.

On the other side of the water, the cave opens up dramatically, theater-like, and Sommai’s hand gestures and fragmented words tell me that they bring instruments in here to celebrate New Year’s. “Good sound,” he echoes, and I nod in agreement. My sports bra is soaked through, and I can hear the dripping from my shorts, the rat-squeak of my Tevas.

The cave’s walls look malleable, like I could burrow in and relax for awhile. For once, I am still, I have nowhere to run. I think of the absurdity of Kevin trying to track me down here, tucked into the nook of this balmy, beautiful country.

Then suddenly my headlamp makes a sizzle sound and the curvy orange walls go blank and my eyes feel like they’ve stopped working.

Sommai is there as I shriek, and everything fades back into light, only dimmer now because I’m sharing his headlamp. We creep back to the water’s edge, me shivering close behind him, my backpack ready on my head—and I hear another sizzle, louder. His light explodes into black.

            I have known total darkness only once before, and it was his darkness, Dennis’s darkness, the dark stillness of a coma. The darkness of an icy doctor responding “Not in my career” to the only question that mattered. It was a September darkness that mocked the brightness of July, when unlike Kevin he had actually tracked me down in Costa Rica to say, finally and for the first time, “I love you.” Costa Rica, where I beat up these Tevas, where we zip-lined through the cloud forest, swam naked and nearly got arrested, where I came close to believing him.

That was a year ago. Now my heart is caged by someone new. Or is it?

Sommai’s voice is wobbly. “No… prob…lem…” he chokes as he makes his way around my battery box. If I weren’t so afraid I might enjoy the warmth of his fingers on my waist, but all I can think about is that water up to my neck in the pitch dark and a sliver of white tail (or was it the last flash of light?) If Kevin was here, he’d laugh at my fear, remind me that rats are cute and who wouldn’t want to go swimming with rats? They’re just like any other rodent who has to gnaw constantly because their teeth never stop growing.

I feel a wire tickle my stomach. Sommai is breathing heavier now, tugging harder on my battery box, muttering to himself. I concentrate on how the darkness does not get any lighter. I think of saying good-bye to Kevin at the airport, me crying and him saying, “You’re going to be fine, you know. You might even be glad I’m not there.” A shadowy memory emerges too, of Dennis showing up at my hostel in Monte Verde and before the ecstasy, a brief bolt of disappointment.

A loud crackle and a pop and I see Sommai’s grin inches from my face. His headlamp throws warm buttery light over the pool and I clap my hands together. We descend back into the warm water and follow the dim light to the entrance of the cave. Just as we exit, I look up to find one albino rat glowing a cheerful good-bye.

Minutes later, I’m floating down the river alone, my backpack and Tevas resting on the muddy bank, my face turned up to the sky, to the light.

BIO: Jess D. Taylor‘s writing has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Pidgeonholes, Superstition Review, Mutha Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine online and elsewhere, and her essay “Cuba Libre” won a Solas Award from Traveler’s Tales. She edits Made Local Magazine, teaches college English and raises her two little girls in Santa Rosa, California.

Photo: Wiki

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