So it happens like this: you’re wandering the street in a country you just entered in a town where you’ve just arrived, marveling at how this place has grown in the years since you’ve last seen it. You barely recognize a thing. You come to a corner café, and you see the hair, familiar hair. But you can’t see the face. Eyes in a book or a magazine. Something in print. Your husband spots the bike. It’s not the same bike, but it’s something he’d drive.
Is that him? I ask.
Your husband steps inside, into the aisle of tables. The man looks up, split second of a blank stare, then shock and smiles.
This is a guy you met in another country umpteen years ago, you and he and everyone working together in the same small circle of journalists in a tiny universe of expats helping locals through the news cycle in a country after war (that was theory; reality was, locals knew way more than you did). You have never seen this man in your home country, or his. You have never seen him since in the country where you met. But every few years, by chance, you see him like this. Somewhere on Earth. Somewhere on the street. Alone. Drinking a beer, reading a book, eating good food.
The three of you plan to meet for dinner the next night. You suggest Indian, arrive a few minutes early, order a masala papad. It’s smothered in onion and ketchup. Ketchup is so not right. You suggest an alternative for dinner when he arrives. You head back to the restaurant where you and your husband ate the night before, because it was so good, because it had no ketchup where ketchup doesn’t belong. It’s the blue-light restaurant on the river, Christmas lights strung through bamboo.
You order a repeat, plus extra beer. It comes: the whole grilled fish, skin peeled back, white meaty flesh. Sticky rice in tiny baskets. Papaya salad with just the right balance of spice and tang, fish and juice and crunch. It comes with baby long bean pods, cabbage and greens. It’s mixed with peanuts, tender red tomatoes, little green eggplants and bright yellow bulbs thick in skin but plump and sweet inside with miniscule seeds—a local fruit, something in the Solanaceae family, something of a mix between eggplant and tomato, if you can imagine. There are thin rice paper wrappers and a bowl of water for soaking. There is lettuce and cabbage, mint and local leaves. There is a plate of rice noodles, chiles, shallots, lime slices, lemongrass, little stalks of tart mango, shreds of garlic. Sweet tamarind dips for dunking. Rich, roasted, smokey, spicy chile jaeow for lovers of heat.
All of this. You sit for hours. You finish half the fish. He carves out the bones. You all eat more. You talk about countries you’ve seen grow and change. Development, corruption, coups, enigmas. Logging, despite the laws. Forests razed, plantations grown. Education lacking. Armies still in control. Futures the same as they ever were. He tells you about places he’s found, little towns perfect for doing nothing. Nothing but watching the river flow by.
A wind whips hard through the frangipani trees, still the season of chills. You pay ($12 for all!), you go. Maybe you’ll see him tomorrow for another beer, or the next day in a town farther south. Maybe you’ll see him another year, in another country, on another river sipping another beer, watching another sunset, somewhere on this wild random Earth.