We are in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Here, there are no commercial buildings or high rises; we’re surrounded by marshlands, cattle, and abandoned temples on the island of Don Khong, Laos. Thanks to our hostel's front desk guy, we have a poorly sketched map on the back of a spare breakfast menu. If we just keep pedaling, we’ll supposedly end up back where we started.
Up ahead, a group of kids play by the side of the road; an older woman watches from an elevated hut. As we get closer, their faces become more distinct: one of the girls has a cleft lip. Some wear ragged clothing; others wear nothing at all. They tiptoe towards us, cautiously.
“Sa Bai Dee!” Hello, we say. It’s the only phrase we know in Lao. We wish there were a way to say more, but it’s impossible to learn a whole other language in mere minutes, right?
Wrong. We scrunch up our faces, cross our eyes, stick out our tongues. Laughter is our mutual tongue.
Moving closer, we dismount our bikes and start taking photos of them. They want to know what we’re doing, so we show them. Their small heads tilt side-to-side observing our camera screens from different angles, trying to figure out how their faces ended up in the palm of our hands. Giving them our cameras, they snap pictures of each another, shrieking happily, still unsure of how it all works. We play and laugh and sit on the dirt road as they crowd around us, toppling over one another in excitement.
In the distance, the sun slowly begins to sink as if to say, “I’m leaving soon and so should you.” Signaling our departure with high fives, we return to our bikes. Swinging my leg over the seat, I pedal forward and—SNAP! I turn to see my friend struggling with her bike—something has broken.
I start heading back towards her, but I’m too late.
The kids swarm over, their tiny hands and limbs moving in between the spaces of spoke and chain. A few adjustments here, some turns there, and her bike is fixed.
We are in what feels like the middle of somewhere. Here, there are homes hand-built by hardworking farmers; we’re surrounded by uninterrupted sunlight, peacefully still air, and youthful laughter on the island of Don Khong, Laos. Thanks to these selfless children who charmed us with their curiosity and inherent kindness, we’ll surely end up back where we started.