Hannah wriggled into the middle seat in the front of the van. It’s what was left. With barely enough space for her backpack and bulging blinged out purse, she hugged them into her chest, pulling one leg up on the cushion for stability. Barefoot and legs riddled with picked mosquito bites, she apologized for her size. Well, she really apologized for not being a petite Lao woman – this spot was unsuitable for anyone else.
I watched from my window seat as she’d periodically turn and engage with the others regarding adventures of backpackers while traveling through Southeast Asia.
Makeup-less, her aviator sunglasses held her long tangled hair from her face. A lip ring was the only jewelry that adorned her.
There was banter about drunken nights in Vang Vieng, an iphone was passed around with an image that had them all in stitches. They surmised what Luang Prabang would be like, none knowing where they’d stay that night.
This was a time when i was grossly aware of my age. Easily 20 years their senior, I pushed them away as naive, irreverent and unsanitary. It’s what I did to stay safe, to limit the insecurities I felt as the possible “mom” figure in the situation. Weren’t they worried of getting something stuck in their shoeless feet? Were chips and cookies a good dinner choice? Did they really not know where they were staying the night? I shook my head at these thoughts…was I really this old?
Hannah saw none of this.
At one point, unable to hold from needing a bathroom, I pieced words in Lao and asked the driver to stop. No answer. I asked again. Nothing. Tapped his shoulder; I was invisible. Watching my frustration, Hannah boomed in a British accent: EXCUSE ME, SHE NEEDS A TOILET. PLEASE STOP. CAN YOU STOP?
At the bus stop, after all stretched their legs and got snacks, she poked her head in the van and asked me how I was going. Bonding over what an a-hole the driver had been, she proceeded to ask and share and before long, I was engaging with this 18 year old quite easily. She was as impressed with our life choices as I was with her confidence.
She knew she wanted to see as much of the world as possible. She was on her way to India to meet distant family for the first time, so connection was important to her. She had a boyfriend back home but she recognized she was young with a whole life ahead of her. She was switched on and mindful and I admired this.
After some time, she asked: “Do you mind my asking how old you are?”
I said, “Old.”
After telling her 38, she said in surprise, “You don’t seem that age at all; that’s cool.”
I nodded and smiled.
I had just exchanged life experiences in a genuine way with someone I never would have imagined. In seven minutes time, I felt curiosity, care, and connection all at once with a stranger.
It was cool.