36 hours ago, after a day long workshop, and as part of a consultancy assignment for CARE in Laos, I had planned to visit my colleague and friend, Tanya, and her young family, for dinner. I’d a bottle of wine at the ready and Tanya was making chicken kiev. But it didn’t quite go to plan…
I always knew that taking a flight out of Vietnam, in these times of Covid-related travel restrictions, would be taking a calculated risk. However, this week I was to be headed to Laos – a neighbouring country with zero Covid cases reported, and I was in possession of the requisite existing Vietnam visa to get me back in.
So, my risk was indeed a well calculated one but, in truth, I was also too motivated to deliver the 3 day workshop for which I’d been hired to now cancel. My last occasion outside of Saigon on assignment was back in November.
I touched down in Laos on Sunday night and arrived at the office the following morning. The day came and went, a safety and security briefing, meeting the team, and preparing for the our time together. I took myself out that evening in Vientiane and enjoyed the fresh new surrounds.
By Tuesday lunchtime I was beaming. The sessions that morning had gone really well. The team were a group of seasoned practitioners, eager to problem solve and work together. The incoming Director was present and enthused by the way her colleagues were sparring off each other. We made some quick progress and, over lunch, I busily set about prepping for the afternoon group work. I’d even messaged home to say how energising it had been to get something positive done with this group, cocooned away from news and stories of Covid-19, as we all were for those few precious hours.
Our afternoon discussions kept up the steady pace of a group wanting to learn and support each other in that pursuit.
I was thrilled.
This, I felt, is where I belong. Steering conversations about poverty programmes, hosting debates about social injustice and gender norms, dropping in ideas here and there and helping to shape the decisions of a group of passionate people, driven to improve their own impact on the world outside.
It had been an all round good decision to make this trip.
And then, around 4:15pm, as we were breaking for the day, the whatsapp message pinged through to my phone.
It was a forwarded ‘alert message’ from my Saigon buddy, Craig, that he’d picked up off the internet. There was to be a mandatory government quarantining for all people arriving into Vietnam from ASEAN countries. There are 10 ASEAN countries, and Laos is one of them. The measure was to be in place by midnight that night.
I had 7 hours to get back into Vietnam.
The prospect of not doing so, and being marched onto a bus upon arrival, and shipped off to a rural camp (there are plenty of stories online about these) for 14 day’s quarantine, was not something I felt would be optimal. On any level.
As much as the Government should be praised for the measures it has been taking here against Covid-19, and the concept of these quarantine camps might be included in that, I was not sure I wanted to be writing this story from one of them.
I packed up my things and went to find a driver to take me back to my hotel. It seemed sensible to verify the source of this latest news, so as to be in a position to respond in the extreme scenario that evacuating myself from Laos that night would be required.
Na, my driver, talked jovially about his day, as we weaved through the city’s main arteries and back to my quaint lodgings, perched alongside the Mekong.
Whilst he asked me questions about my family, my mind was upgrading its own level of functionality to “Def-Con” 2. I knew there were no flights now to Saigon as there was only one a day, in the morning. However, I was pretty certain there might be an evening one up to Hanoi, which would at least get me over the border.
It was 5pm. Na was asking what time I wanted picking up in the morning. “8:30am” I replied. Maybe this talk of ASEAN restrictions was all false news? Perhaps I’ll get back to my room and learn that the alert wasn’t real and, that way, I’ll still have time for a run up the river, before heading out to meet Tanya for dinner. Yes, that could happen still, right? I’d been craving chicken kiev all day.
We reached the Chanthapanya Hotel and I wished Na a nice evening and headed to my room and onto the wi-fi. The messages from my Saigon friends were brimming in my whatsapp in-box. Some further backing up of the initial alert seemed solid.
The butterflies in my stomach started. I went online to check if I could, in fact, get to Hanoi that night instead. Yes, affirmative. There was a flight scheduled for 7:45pm, landing at 9pm. That would get me in. It didn’t matter after that what happened, I’d be in and that (it was becoming ragingly obvious to me) might be all that counted for now.
Without consciously deciding it, I begun to throw clothes into my bag. It felt like I was in a movie scene, on the run. I switched up my shoes and put on a t-shirt, double checked my money and passport. Once this new tempo was underway, I knew I’d need to just keep going and try and make this happen.
Downstairs in the lobby a bemused receptionist took in my request for a car to the airport, and half laughed as he started to call someone for me, taking my room key as I stood with my bags and pretended not to look on edge. Heart rate was well up. Butterflies were amassing.
Another very courteous and helpful young guy appeared from nowhere, and I was in the hotel van, on my way. The airport was not far, but local city traffic meant we crawled at what I was judging to be slower than walking pace. I blinked purposefully out of the window, willing myself to appreciate the humble and charming backdrop of Vientiane, and the streets I’d been looking forward to exploring more that week.
What if there are no seats left on this flight? My fingers drummed away on my lap.
We reached the airport and it was blissfully quiet. The check-in staff sent me to the ticketing counter at first, 100 metres away. Then ticketing sent me back to check-in, and then finally, again, I was palmed back to ticketing.
During this little game of ping-pong we had managed to determine that I couldn’t change my existing return flight, because the destination had changed (Hanoi, not Saigon). So I needed a fresh one-way ticket. No problem. At this stage, the ticketing lady could have asked for $1,000 and I wouldn’t have flinched.
I could feel the rise and fall of my breathing, and my mind working like a network of pin-balls, zipping about and banging into each other, the threat of quarantine never far from thought. The inevitable grilling I would get at immigration, even if I did catch this flight, given the heavy restrictions on UK passport holders, was also lurking as a chilling reality.
Even though I knew my visa was sound, and arriving before midnight would be within the current rules, I was role-playing the scenarios in my head. If I had to go to a quarantine camp would it be down in the south, nearer Saigon? Would I have a connection to call Issy and the girls, as my phone was out of credit? I only had one book to read, and I was already halfway through it. With whom would I be sharing a dorm?
Around me, ticketing and check-in staff were fulfilling the mundane task of getting me a boarding pass. My internal questions churned over, and the adrenaline showed no signs of abating. Still, I kept a smile on my face and nodded at their questions, as 9 years living in South East Asia has trained me to do.
My luggage was tagged, I was handed a ticket and, in those seconds, was on my way up the escalators to departures. This really was happening.
It was after 6pm, but there was still time to calm my nerves, so I paid $20 to use the business lounge’s wifi and re-balance my blood/sugar levels with two cold bottles of Beer Lao.
Some messages were sent to confirm my situation. Issy was on the case finding me credits to use at a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (my father-in-law was due to stay there this week himself, ironically, but had cancelled his trip). I was beginning to feel normal again.
The official announcement then came out on the internet about this new ASEAN rule. With land borders apparently locked down, this flight, it now became clear, was the sole way I might be able to avoid being caught up in quarantine. It was almost 7pm and, in theory, a few hour’s from now I could be safely in Hanoi, with this episode over.
The airport tannoy sparked into life. “Would Mr Timothy Bishop, flying to Hanoi, please come to check-in”. At first, I pretended not to hear my name so distinctly enunciated over the speaker. The message repeated. It was my name. Gathering up my things and leaving half a beer on the table, I begun to sleep walk towards the door. The lounge steward took my bag and reassured me that “they’ve probably found a battery charger in your luggage, it happens all the time – leave your things here, no problem”.
I strided through the terminal. I didn’t have a battery charger in my bag. What could they need or want?
The alcohol helped mask my rising tension. Back through immigration, who held onto my passport, and through security down to the same chirpy check-in staff. They saw me coming and one of them pointed in my direction.
A new guy took over the job of speaking his best English to me to explain that “we need you to sign a waiver” – “OK, sure, what for?” – “well, there is a chance when you land in Hanoi that you will be quarantined” – “OK. But the new ASEAN rule is from midnight, correct?” – “yes, Sir, but there is still a chance, you need to sign this paper to say we’ve warned you.”
Just paperwork, I told myself. I’ve got the right visa, I’m landing before midnight. I’ll be fine. I reiterated these facts out loud, in the hope of some vague recognition from the, by now, six check-in staff crowded round us listening in. “You are very brave, Sir, but you are also very clever, you have everything OK, I am sure, but these days we don’t know.”
‘These days we don’t know’ isn’t such a bad mantra for the world right now, I thought. Maybe it should be printed on a T-shirt.
I signed the form, smiling from ear to ear, perhaps subconsciously in the hope that by appearing so cordial this guy would later message the Hanoi immigration team for me, and vouch for my splendid credentials.
I turned on my heel, bee-lined back to the lounge and drained my beer. The flight was now on its ‘last boarding’ call. Enough already, get me out of here, was all I kept turning over in my head, and I marched onto my evacuation flight.
Mercifully, Vientiane to Hanoi is a mere 45 minute hop. No sooner had we peaked at altitude than we were in our descent.
I’d attempted a few pages of my intense Ian McKewan novel, whose protagonist is such a fallen character that I felt it might cheer me up, and distract from my own plight.
Butterflies took over again, however, and I spent parts of the flight with my eyes closed deep in thought.
What if I failed the temperature checks they’ve been imposing ? I took some paracetamol and tapped my feet on the floor.
A few more deep breaths and the reassuring skid of tyres on tarmac, and I was up on my feet, shuffling to the front and pitching forward down the skydeck.
It was pissing down in Hanoi. Apocalyptic style rain. I needed the bathroom, but made the decision to get into the queues early.
First up, the health check queue.
Clutching my form and coaching myself to remain calm, I handed over my passport and immediately the guard called for assistance and I was sent over to someone else. UK passports are red alert documents right now. I waited.
The new guy was leafing through studying my stamps. “Sri Lanka” he said out loud. That was in January, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. “Thailand” he then blurted, and looked at me. “Over 14 days ago” I replied (it had been 15 days, I later realised).
Keep it steady, smile and be nice.
This back and forth continued. Another guard was called over to the huddle. They looked me up and down as the line behind me grew.
My bladder was protesting at this point, but I was focused on my expression being relaxed. Although, because of my face mask, you could only see my eyes and eye-brows. I kept smiling beneath the mask, hoping my happy demeanour could still be interpreted through the look in my eyes. Although I wonder if, instead, to the outside world I just looked increasingly deranged as a result.
Ten more seconds passed and then I got the passport back and my medical form stamped. I could move on to stage 2. Surely those had been the people who could have held me back but I was through and it was over. I was starting to feel good now.
Scanning for a bathroom, I decided instead to plough on to immigration. Perfecting my “happy eyes” pose, and feeling slightly lighter on foot, I was hungry for the finish-line.
A few more minutes of queuing and it was my turn. The escalators behind my customs official were in sight, and beyond them, baggage claim and freedom. I went for maximum happy eyes and handed over my passport.
Again, instantly, my guy called in for reinforcements. The passport was hot potato-ed around once more, and they guided me over to a separate visa counter for questionning. On the way there I took in what can only be described as a team dressed head to toe in bright yellow and black nuclear armour, examining boxes and bags.
You’ve got this, keep it together, nice and easy.
No less than three new officials then inspected the pages of my passport and randomly asked questions. I’d decided beforehand on some stock pieces of information I’d use when questioned and so, when each asked me anything I robotically stuck to my script, “I’ve been in Laos, for three days…..just Laos, I live here…live here for 9 years…yes, just Laos…9 years living here.”
I tried this with each new person who flicked through my documents, but nothing I was saying seemed to register. I held firm. “Just Laos….here’s my boarding pass from Sunday when I arrived.” More page turning. More silence.
And then, in between another sustained pause, and with my happy eyes refrain almost exhausted, I threw in, “my daughter, born here.”
This elicited a response, “your daughter?” “Yes” – I nodded, and held my breath.
The guard nonchalantly turned around and went to the photo-copier. I blinked away any residual stresses that might have been lingering in my tear-ducts, and joyously watched as he stamped the papers and handed them back to me.
Before anyone could change their mind, I darted back to immigration and, this time, I knew I was in.
The reassuring clunk of the date entry stamp and the slow head tip of the official happened in slow motion.
Elated, I made my most treasured steps forward of 2020, past the customs counter and then ten paces to the left, where I plonked my weary frame on the world’s most magical escalator, and was dreamily eased down into a world without panic.
All that was now left for me to do, today, of any life changing significance really, was to find a bathroom.
With my nose pressed against the airplane window, I watched the sun drop down below grey candy floss clouds earlier this evening. As the turbulence pitched us up and down for a few brief moments, my toes twitched in their socks and the imposed face mask scratched at my cheek.
The fading golden disc of fiery heat closed inwards to a final, gasping dot of colour. I wanted it to come with me, to touch down on the tarmac two miles ahead, walk with me off the sky deck and onto the fusty, carpeted walkway into Vientiane’s arrivals terminal.
I could have pocketed that bright, baby orb of light, as it dwelt for five more seconds over the horizon skirting. But, instead, I blinked and it was gone.
Later, I was stood by the baggage carousel, checking the notes I needed to change at the counter nearby. There was a comforting familiarity in the metallic surfaces around me, the garish advertising and the random assortment of backpackers and silver haired tourists shuffling past.
Who was watching my sun now? I wondered.
It was Christmas Day, almost 3 months ago now, that Issy and I were last in Laos. Our pre-wedding honeymoon, in Luang Prabang – a week of chilly morning hillside treks, and afternoon card games by the Mekong River.
Between then and now I’ve enough memories and stories to fill a dozen blog posts. Our wedding celebrations in Galle provided the perfect, sustained segueing celebrations between 2019 and 2020. A daily barrage of unique sensations and delights, as we were surrounded by special people and blessed by all that Sri Lanka has to offer.
For another time, with photos and reflections, I will try and paint in more detail how those fabulous days unfolded…
For now, for tonight, I am satiated by the privilege of travel, and the upcoming delivery of a week’s work ahead.
Interlaced between these weeks and months of crashing daily media about Covid-19, the girls have been off school since they closed at Tet, I’ve been setting up my new venture (www.coracleconsulting.net) and excitedly started agreeing work contracts, only to then disappointingly lose them to the virus. And alongside this we’ve been firming plans for a future move to Australia. The year, as most will concur, has not been without its “interesting” moments already.
But for now, for tonight (and until otherwise instructed!) I am here in Vientiane.
A city somewhat left behind from the accelerated growth that other Asian countries have enjoyed. A city of charm and hospitality. A city, it turns out, with seemingly very few face mask wearers and, as I remember it from my last visit, a city where things take their time. Laos PDR, we were informed over our Christmas “pre-moon”, stands for Laos ‘Please Don’t Rush.’
I don’t think I will. For now.
It was Christmas Day almost 3 months ago now that Issy and I were last in Laos. Our pre-wedding honeymoon, a week of chilly morning hillside treks,
Blown by the wind I lean in
To each next flailing stride,
Eyes creep up,
Take in the green ‘scape
A rhythmic shudder of coarse
Every sinew clenched,
Fighting for oxygen
With teeth grinding left and right,
Another 100 yards,
– A kilometer even –
Holding on, and holding
Around the corner
Forest breeze surfs through my hair
And then, assured, then –
A gear change,
A release between
Then and now and why and how
Fluid, perfectly fluid,
The strokes as if through water,
Beyond pain and forward,
Turning the latch
An icy shaft blows in.
Outside, a crunch underfoot,
Peering into the silent blizzard
Beneath amber street-lamps,
A scene from a story of make believe form,
I pull my coat tighter,
Blinking into the snowflake tips
That prick my face,
And edge down the street.
A static coat of arms,
Parked cars entombed in snow –
Calm rings out as black clouds shift above.
If I listen hard enough I can hear the calm elsewhere –
The fluorescent entrance lights of the hospital
Hiding the sleepy wards of old and young,
Lost in their dreams of tomorrow,
Silently walking with me
Feeling the life in their fingertips.
The nourishment of movement!
In the eerie quiet of this moment others
To ease out of life.
The brush of pillow on their cheek,
A final revelatory sensation
Of pulse and current,
Minutes become seconds become darkness.
Inhabiting this new paradigm
I feel for my keys,
Their serrated edges temporarily
Escape me back to the confines of
I click the kettle switch and
Read each word of the last holiday postcard,
Holding onto the fridge corner to steady myself.
A very cold IPA is slipping down right now as I wait to board for Melbourne. The crowning of an indulgent adventure in Singapore this weekend with my running compadre, Mr Lars Grombach.
We came to tackle the Craze Ultra 55km night run. Neither of us had necessarily reached pique fitness in the preceding weeks (Lars, in fact, fractured a toe whilst playing football on the beach during my stag weekend 6 weeks back) however both of us were in fine mental fettle, and then increasingly delirious from touching down at Changi airport on Friday lunchtime and checking into our hotel (complete with McDonalds round the corner and 7/11 even closer) all the way up to our 5pm starting time yesterday.
We moved into full prep mode once we got to Singapore. No alcohol Friday night. Lots of carbs and protein. Movie. Sleeping tablets. Lie in. And then an enormous buffet breakfast yesterday morning before plenty of chill time, during which our eyes watered as we watched Eliud Kipchoge smash his sub-two hour marathon attempt.
As soon as Kipchoge was hugging his family and jumping up and down with the Vienna crowds, we were marching off to the start line, vaseline applied, energy gels packed and music playlists at the ready.
Our starting group number was 30 runners in all. A “local” race you could say – a status cemented in full as a young girl, taking our picture on her smart phone, handed out our pre race instructions: “just run straight, unless you see any signposts telling you otherwise”.
Fully confident after such an extensive briefing, we set off through the urban suburbs of Singapore and pitched up at Check Point 1 after 13.5kms running in 1 hour 27 minutes. We were doing good. I switched up my socks (as well as the brand new soles I’d bought that afternoon that predictably were giving me blisters – lunatic) and we headed off with a renewed sense of purpose. The next Check Point we got to would be halfway…
Sadly, the combination of luck along with the race’s local flavor were not on our side. As we departed the Check Point, continuing along the road we’d come up, no one pointed out to us that we were going the wrong way. Caught up in some chat about nothing and the warming realization that we’d passed the 20km mark, we were oblivious to this crucial detail until it was way too late – about 8kms too late to be exact.
Lars’ 4G regrouped us back in the right direction and we eventually caught up with a slow moving group of Singaporeans wearing full head gear and running suits. We’d arrived at the official 15km mark – but we’d manage to run 24kms.
This wasn’t great.
To set out to run 55km in itself requires an element of psyching up. For that km total to increase out of the blue by 8kms was not part of the script.
Hunkering down and fighting our respective demons, we persevered.
Lars, however, was in a pickle. Having not run for 6 weeks, his legs were OK but his heart rate was spiking up to 190 beats per minute. We walked a bit, we jogged on. We walked a bit more.
A few distractions were thrown to us at this stage. Around one corner we stumbled into a fellow runner called Craig, covered in blood. He’d tripped and landed on his face. I assessed he probably needed a stitch on his lip and one of his top front teeth had been snapped in half.
His adrenaline ensured he could keep a sense of humour about the incident. I offered him water, juice, ibuprofen, a tourniquet, but he had all these things, and just wanted Lars to call the organizer to come pick him up.
In an awkward moment of silence whilst this took place, I offered to take a picture of his face for him so he could analyse the extent of his injuries. I’m not sure why, but he thanked me for that, and we patted him on the shoulder and then went on our way.
Thinking this might have calmed Lars’ blood pressure down (being witness to a fallen solider such as Craig) I tried to boost our spirits with some chat. Helpfully, a frog jumped in front of us at that moment, and right into the forward stride of my right leg, meaning he received a boot which flung him a metre in the air.
As ice-breakers go, I thought this was divine. Lars checked his heart rate again – 192 – he was not ready to entertain the perspective of it all. No chipped toothed participant, or slightly winded amphibian was going to district him from the fact that he was in a dark place.
Not before long – at around our 27km mark – we parted company. He’d had enough and I didn’t blame him. Unlike any other race I’ve done, this one was randomly marked out, and took you through sparsely quiet pockets of the city.
I cranked up my playlist and put my head down.
Ironically, the next stretch of 15km was great. Inside parks, alongside rivers. I reached the halfway mark (still 8kms extra on my watch) and did a quick U-turn to get on with the job of reaching the finish line.
Doubling back and covering more familiar pathways was OK. But the psychology of constantly reminding yourself you’ve run more than is required smarted a bit.
My legs were in good shape though and I had one fortunate encounter with a Filipino runner who helped ensure I didn’t deviate off the badly signposted roads. His name was Renate and he’d walked the route last week and taken pictures of himself by distinguishing trees so he wouldn’t get lost. Clever guy. Lucky me.
Midnight came and went. I’d reached 55km. I should have got to the end. Instead, more gels, more water, some salt tablets, some pain killers, some loud guitar chords, and before long I was into single km figures and I knew I’d make it.
These races, these “tests”, these adventures. There are always moments of doubt, moments of pain and moments of comradery and laughter.
As long as I can, my biggest hope is to always put myself in these bizarre, and yet extremely ‘human’ arenas – to compete, to roll the dice, to live a little bit differently for a brief moment in time.
This man sleeps in five-star
high above and
on that man
a pyramid of limes,
waiting for a customer.
This woman feels forever
and ill prepared
to teach the class,
sleeps under a tree
whilst traffic stuck,
shuttling him and her and them
onward to a new
moment of playing at
who they are.
We are all in sales,
to feed the
pulse and curiosity
of where each
investment might take us too next –
a better paid job
a clearer conscience