James Batcho, PhD

jimbatcho.com

October 13, 2013

LUANG PRABANG. "I arrive in a village for my holidays, happy to leave my work and my everyday surroundings. I settle in the village, and it becomes the centre of my life. The low level of the river, gathering in the maize crop or nutting are events for me. But if a friend comes to see me bringing news from Paris, or if the press and radio tell me that war threatens, I feel an exile in the village, shut off from real life, pushed far away from everything. Our body and our perception always summon us to take as the centre of the world that environment with which they present us. But this environment is not necessarily that of our own life. I can ‘be somewhere else’ while staying here, and if I am kept far away from what I love, I feel out of touch with real life. The Bovary mentality and certain forms of home-sickness are examples of life which has become decentred. The maniac, on the other hand, is centred wherever he is: ‘his mental space is broad and luminous, and his thought, sensitive to all objects which present themselves, flies from one to the other and is caught up in their movement’."*

I adapt my body to the container it lives in. Things are slow here, quiet. After more than a week in Luang Prabang, I too am slow and quiet. I walk slowly, gesture slowly, drink coffee slowly. The space around me has become denser yet easier to penetrate. I wonder why I'm here. I know why I've arrived, why I've stayed, and what I'm doing; but I'm not sure why I'm here, what led me here. I've been sick with the flu for a full week. It has affected my body and my spirit. There's something to be said for detaching in order to do some work, maybe even something romantic, and that I should fall into that. But in my ill state, I find that I miss people. I miss no one in particular, just conversation. Not small talk, conversation. It pains me to overhear the prattle of tourists filling in the gaps between them, about health and diet, places and travel, friends and gossip. I do not miss that. I miss intimacy. That is the source of my unrest. It's a shame because this is a special place. The quiet, in particular, truly is sublime. Sounds are those of children playing, the hum of a ceiling fan, birds singing in trees, the pushing of a rake on concrete, the clicking of... something. All sounds are distant ones here. I don't hear anything close. My soundtrack is all diffusion, a bleeding continuity, of place but not from any particular location. Things visually notable are encased in silence, as if keenly aware of their surroundings: birds hopping on the sidewalk, butterflies in a lover's dance, ants moving along a telephone wire, a monk walking down the road, a golden Buddha with the thousand-year stare.

I think this is why the dialog, when it does move into my space, shocks me as much as it does: that all too familiar forced melody of polite suggestion, necessary to keep companions from turning on each other. All the weight in what is expressed and unexpressed in the expression. Everything is fine, whether or not everything is fine. This is fine. It comes and goes like harmless ghosts, we sharing a presence but unaware of each other's narratives. And I know that the silence will return.

I have four more nights booked here, but I have eight more before I am supposed to be back in Chiang Mai. I'm wondering how best to spend those open four nights. I've been told by friends to head north, where it is truly quiet. My mind sees the potential in this, but my stomach is screaming its paranoia. I'm not in the mood for adventure, and I've spent enough time on the john. It's not just this though. I want to be back in a place where people seem to live rather than travel. If my inclination of the day holds, I will go back to Vientiane, spending a night in Vang Vieng along the way. Maybe I could play a jazz set somewhere, hit an open mic, bump shoulders, run the risk of meeting someone.

*The quote at the start of this entry is from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from his book The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), which I’ve recently finished. One benefit of being sick was that I could only muster enough energy to read. I’ve also been working my way through Descartes, Barthes and Benjamin. I’m not sure what I will go to next, maybe Plato or maybe nothing. It might be a good time to simply write.

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