How I managed to spend 6 months travelling...

The guy I rented a bicycle from in town showed me the nearest cave on a hand-drawn map. He told me it was about 4km away, and there are plenty of signs.

"Easy, easy. You find it."

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To be able to spend six months wandering, I worked 3+ jobs for six months in Colorado. My favorite of those was at a lovely little coffee shop in Boulder. As is the case with most jobs, my co-workers made the experience what it was. I hit it off with one of the other girls right away.

Julia was game to get into heavy conversations right from the get-go. I came to look forward to working with her, eager to see where the shift's chats would end up. One day, when "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie came on Pandora, she asked me if I had ever thought about that before, about following a complete stranger into the figurative dark.

"It's so beautiful," I remember her saying as she plucked a bagel from the display case with metal tongs, looking up at me from her task with big, blue eyes. "Can you imagine just not knowing someone at all and still saying 'I'm with you.' I just think that's so amazing."

I didn't know quite what to say because I hadn't about it that way before.

"I just think it's so. beautiful," she said, in awe of thought.

----

When I cut down a gravel path, just before the asphalt road curved sharply to the right, as shown in the map in my pocket, I cycle past a row of stilted bungalows. Some locals are sitting in them, picnicking, it looks like, but most we're empty. There are a few green ponds at the foot of epic, jungle-smothered karst formations. I cycle along a tiny, muddy path that sucks at my tires, thinking the whole time this can't possibly be the way (where the he'll are those signs). But the scenery is breathtaking so why turn around just yet? I get to a point where the bushes obstructing the path are too thick, indicating no one has been through here recently. This is most definitely not the right place. Someone behind me whistles, I pivot and see a man in the distance with a red baseball cap, waving his arms, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

I wonder if he owns the land and wants me to leave. I worry I've trespassed or done something offensive.

"You go cave?" He asks me when I reach him, pointing at me and pointing into the woods.

"Yea, can I?"

"I take you? I guide."

"How much?"

"Ten souzand."

$1.25.

I have no clue where the cave is, and he seems genuine. I can bail if I need to.

"What's your name?"

"Biyung."

"Biyung? I'm Haley."

I follow him down another path I hadn't noticed before. I stay about ten paces behind him. He strolls lazily, both arms hanging at his sides, puffs of smoke still emerging around his head. We come to a creek exiting a small, dark cavern at the foot of towering karst. He points downstream. The banks are steep, muddy, and studded with big, sharp rocks. He gestures that we'll go through the river and around the other bank. The forest is too thick to see more than ten feet ahead of us, so I'm not sure where exactly that is. He puts his phone and cigarettes on a tree branch and gestures for me to put my bag there.

I can't leave my bag because I have my passport, wallet, camera, and phone with me. I gesture that I'll take it with me. He laughs and wags a finger.

"No, no, water here," he looks at me holding his hands up just below his armpits, then points across the water, swishing his finger to show the route again.

He gestures that he's going to take his pants off and then pulls his shirt over his head, hanging it on the tree, next to his other belongings.

"Water here," he says again, holding his arms up again.

He pulls his trousers down, revealing army-green briefs and muscley quads.

I smile and say I'll leave my clothes on and I'm bringing my bag, indicating that I'll hold it above my head in the water. I'll just change later.

He smiles and shows me how high the water will be again, I grin back at him and knod, "It's okay. It's okay."

He takes me down the shore and through the deep water. I'll realize later that I didn't hesitate at all going in, the temperature is pleasantly warm. It's a murky grey-blue, though, you can't see your feet at the bottom. Biyung seems to know the way by heart. I follow him, occasionally mis-stepping and placing my feet on jagged rocks.

The cave is big and beautiful, complete with bats, blazing-green moss, dramatic stalactites and scooped-out karst, but that's not the point of this story.

To get out of the cave we go back around a different end. Biyung guides me through another pool of warm, dolphin-colored water. This time the route is trickier and the water is deeper, so he leads me with one hand and holds my bag above his head for me with the other, freeing me up to gracelessly grasp at nearby rocks when I wobble going over the uneven, concealed riverbed.

Now we've made it past the main room, to where the light is swallowed by an equally large, dripping cavern. Biyung climbs between a narrow crack in the rock. I move slowly behind him, thinking if we we're ten pounds heavier we might not fit. The back of this cave is dotted with the same pointy rocks as the shore. The bank, again, is thick mud, leading into the water at a serious pitch.

Biyung points at the water, just barely visible with the last rays of light from the previous cavern. He motions downwards, "Five meters. You no fall." His eyes are wide. He points into the black. "We go there and out. I no see, I..." He holds his hands out in front of him, miming feeling around in the dark. "Okay? You okay?"

We cling to the steep mud at the edge of the cave, scuttling in slow motion over to the next flat bank. Biyung goes ahead of me and watches intently when I follow him, gasping when one of my feet slips about a meter down the slope. He takes his sandals off and throws them ahead, then motions for me to do the same. It's easier to cling with bare feet.

Very, very slowly I unstrap from my tevas and hand them to Biyung. He extends a hand until I make it all the way over. We wash our shoes in the water and put them back on, about to wade in again, in another pool. I'm now completely covered in mud, and my clothes 100% soaked. Biyung is squatting as he waits for me, mostly naked and shivering.

We wade into the water again, Biyung balancing my bag on his head with one arm and gripping my wrist with the other. We move at a glacial pace as he feels his way cautiously and stops to ensure I make it around the same waste-high rock, over the same deep crack in the river bed. We make it to another mud bank and Biyung leads me triumphantly around a bend in the rocky walls. Light spills back over us. We look at each other and laugh. We climb out.

I thank Biyung about five times and hand him 20,000 kip. I wait for him while he dresses and as we walk back I make a concerted effort to have a conversation with him. He asks me how long I'm in Laos, I ask him if he's from the area. This time he offers me a cigarette.

Biyung grew up around here and takes tourists through the cave for a little money. In low season (now) they don't necessarily come, and if I hadn't been cycling slowly through the area he might not have gone at all. I wonder, then who followed who?

Posted in Business Post Date 09/06/2020


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