Traveling. Connections are real and possible.

HER NAME WAS TANA. It seemed simple enough for a nickname, but there were a bunch of funky Czech accents in there that I couldn’t pronounce properly.

I learned she was from a small ski town about an hour outside of Prague. She had no idea where Philadelphia was. “It’s near New York,” I said.

While simultaneously exhaling a cloud of smoke, she said, “I hate your American cities.”

Her accent made me imagine her as a spy, sleek and aloof, sporting black tights.

“Have you ever been to America?”

Smiling. “No. I know. Cities just seem so fast. Dirty. And ….” Searching for the word.

“Separated,” she replied.

“Segregated?”

Laughter and another smile. She pressed her temples as if in pain. Frustrated. “Yes. My
English is not so good. Segregated. Like rich people live here and poor people live there.”

She caught me checking her out in her red bikini more than once, responding with her green eyed stare and a smile, as if to say, “You’re welcome.”

We were at the Best Last Bar. Michael and I had paddled kayaks down the Nam Song river. Michael was chatting up another girl, Katka, whom I’d learn later was Tana’s sister. We all drank BeerLao. Mammoth limestone karst cliffs shot skyward in every direction as if out of a dream.

Tana was quiet, distant during our dinner which consisted mostly of BeerLao. I gave up on trying to connect with her, and reverted back to my gregarious self, inventing choreographed dances and telling stories about being chased by the police in Pittsburgh. Not quite charming.

But I was aware of Tana sitting there, watching. She picked up her sticky rice and rolled it into a proper ball like a local. She used way too much chili oil on her food, just the way I like it. By the end of the meal, with few words spoken between us, we were sharing cigarettes. She poked me in the ribs and pointed to her bare feet. I had been letting the ash from my cigarette fall in between her toes for a few minutes without realizing.

After dinner we went to an outdoor bar equipped with a bonfire, hammocks, and free drinks known mysteriously as “buckets.” Served in the type of plastic bucket or pail one would use to construct sand castles at the beach, these two-liter containers were ubiquitous at any bar in Vang Vieng. I know they said there was Lao Whiskey in there but all I could taste was Red Bull and sugar.

Our intimate dinner party turned into a raucous large group. There were hammock swinging contests, long distance bonfire pissing, and bucket chugging. I witnessed a solitary drinker who appeared to be on mushrooms, get his genitals burned with a cigarette by a livid local for pissing near a group of girls.

Tana and I found ourselves quarantined off from the rest of our friends as we shared a
hammock, wrapped around each other like the knots of a rope. My hands slowly found hers.

She seemed drawn to and infatuated with massaging the space between my ribs. When we would crawl out of the hammock to get to the bar, she would gush and smile at the Canadian bartender, a white guy with dreadlocks.

“He is so very cute,” she said while laughing and staring at the ground.

“Really?” Is she messing with me, I thought.

When we fumbled our way back into our hammock, the insecurities and doubt in my head were starting to get the better of me.

“I prefer a guy in a suit and a tie more,” I joked. “Like a politician.”

“No. He’s cute,” she replied. Laughing as she wrapped her hands around me again, finding my ribs, which she said she could see through my shirt.

“I used to have dreadlocks,” Tana explained. “Like down to my ass. I just cut them before this trip. When I meet my sister in Australia. I have a sort of thing for guys with dreadlocks.”

I remembered giving a friend back home relationship advice once. “Insecurity is the
most unattractive quality. Male or female.” I took my own advice and just enjoyed swinging in this hammock, trying not to picture her with dreadlocks, sharing buckets with this girl I just met, who I was learning I had much in common with.

We both dealt with substance abuse, depression, anger and general social destruction. It struck a chord with her when I blithely mentioned how I played guitar in a band and was on the road for many years, partying and bathing in the murky water of low morals that comes with being a B level rockstar. Tana was disturbed and complained that my feet were freezing while massaging them. So I rubbed my cold feet in her face. She punched me in the thigh with the force of someone who has been in a fight before. She laughed and pulled me closer.

We shared buckets for hours and what must have been two packs of awful Laos cigarettes.

Hooking up while traveling happens, but this felt like more. This was different than that
forgettable evening with the anonymous Aussie in Buenos Aires, where we convinced ourselves that the ecstasy was better than it actually was. It was different than the time I spent playing guitar all night for that bartender in Arequipa. It wasn’t drunken pool hopping and skinny dipping in Siem Reap. I wasn’t seeking refuge from my own space cake induced hysteria on the bitter streets of Maastricht. And I wasn’t just there for the free weed cookies and a break from my band that night in Tucson.

I walked her back to her guesthouse while we shared a stumbling home beer. We kissed for the first time. Drunk and sloppy. She playfully bit my lip. I backed off to feign disinterest and she pulled me back in.

Tana was sharing a room with her sister who was inside, asleep and alone. She crept in her room with drunken grace, turned, smiled and gave me a see you tomorrow look.

Traveling. Things happen, plans change. Connections are real and possible. We spent a
week together, altering our plans, spitting off of high rise buildings in Vientianne, and checked out a local cockfight with the familiarity and joy that has always been difficult to find.

I found a flight today from D.C. to Prague for $825.

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