"They don't bite if you keep moving around!'
The helpful advice floated into my ears as I stood on the edge of one of the many murky lagoons that dot the path along the Kuang Si waterfalls. Calmly cutting a path through the jungle just an hour's drive outside of Luang Prabang in the sleepy southeast Asian nation of Laos, the waterfalls are a popular destination for tourists looking to escape the oppressive heat. The falls cascade down a series of ledges, water collecting into pools that are deep enough to allow visitors to strip down into bathing attire and swim.
And that's exactly what I had come here to do. If I could just muster the courage.
The woman who had shouted out the tidbit of encouragement was treading water about twenty feet out in the lagoon that I was tepidly dipping my toes into. In her late thirties or early forties, the accent hinted that she likely hailed from Australian or perhaps New Zealand. She moved her limbs from side to side, swatting away swaths of water and causing droves of doctor fish hunting for a peck of flesh to flee in every direction.
For the unfamiliar, a "doctor fish" is a type of fish that typically eats algae but in some environmental situations will turn to nibbling on the flesh of live creatures to supplement their diet. This behavior has made the fish attractive for use in spas where customers pay for the pleasure of dipping their limbs into the water and having the fish feast on their dead skin cells. The Kuang Si falls seemed to have quite a hungry pack of doctor fish darting about its lagoons as evidenced by the constant squeals of surprise from swimmers that become stationary for too long. And unlike the spas back in town - no fee for the "pleasure".
I'm squeamish about getting into sterilized swimming pools, let alone natural bodies of water, which is why I found myself standing on the edge of the lagoon pacing back and forth in a feeble attempt to build a bit of courage. "Oh come on, you came all this way!"
Another nudge from the woman in the lagoon. She offered it with a smile and a knowing laugh.
I returned the smile and decided that moping about the edge of the waterfall while others freely frolicked without a care in the world was, indeed, silly. I did my best to take a discreet deep breath and waded out onto the edge of the shallow area of the lagoon. I hesitated for a moment but quickly steeled my resolve and confidently strode forward off the ledge. My feet sunk into the murky water, my mind racing as I imagined an assortment of snakes, eels, and creepy creatures skittering out of the way of my thick legs. I found myself disoriented as I tread out into the yellow-blue water, legs akimbo and grasping for a foot hold. As I moved through the warm liquid one foot would catch hold of rocky outcroppings just as the other found an endless abyss of depth.
I'm a strong swimmer though, so I slowly made my way to a submerged section of rock where I was able to sit with my body under water but my head comfortably dry above the waves. Now perched on my rocky throne, I looked over to a neighboring outcropping where the woman had also perched herself and said, "You were right. I came all this way and I needed to do this."
She let out a little chuckle and replied with, "So, where are you from?"
As a traveling American, this can be an interesting question. Many Americans cling to the idea that the rest of the world hates them, though after all my years of traveling my personal opinion is that this concept is largely an urban legend. Still, there is a small subset of people in the world who hear that you're an American and do indeed turn a noticeable cold shoulder. While some of my fellow citizens will often use the tactic of lying about their background (often posing as Canadians) to avoid this awkwardness, I always answer honestly when people ask me where I'm from. In the rare instance where someone does have a problem with my nationality, I view it as an opportunity to engage with someone and at least try to make a good impression.
"I'm from Chicago. The US. How about yourself?"
"New Zealand. Queenstown."
"I've never been to New Zealand but I really want to visit Queenstown. I've heard great things about the area."
At this she scrunched her face up a bit, narrowing her eyes slightly in disbelief. "You've heard of Queenstown? That's interesting. Most Americans I've met can't even find New Zealand on the map let alone Queenstown!"
A yelp of surprise escaped my lips, though her comment wasn't the cause. I had felt the unmistakable sensation along the skin my calf of nibbling. I had let my guard down and stopped moving my legs while talking and the doctor fish had seized upon the opportunity. I began swinging my legs from side to side in an effort to ward off future bites.
A nibble from a fish and the metaphorical nibble of her comment returned to my mind. Part of me wanted to retort that not all Americans were so oblivious, but part of me also knew that she was right. Americans are indeed notoriously unclear about the world outside of their borders, and many equally clueless about American geography as well. I've often had to explain where countries I am visiting are located for people in my life. For many Americans, the world outside their hometown just isn't a priority. That's part of the luxuries of living in the American bubble of prosperity - your knowledge can stop at your town's borders and do just fine.
I swallowed my pride and shifted the conversation by asking her what she did for a living and why she was in Laos. This proved to be fertile ground as she rocketed off with excitement. She relayed that she was a nurse and was here on a holiday with her husband and two young children. The children were the two bodies I had seen circling the lagoon in fits of excitement, doggie-paddling hither and thither with glee. Her husband was sprawled out on the bench of a picnic table taking a nap in the shade, his bright red skin slathered in thick layers of too-late-to-help sunscreen. They had arrived in Laos because it was next to Thailand and they figured with three weeks on their hands they might as well give it a go.
Our small talk stretched on for several minutes as we luxuriating in the warm water, building rapport and lowering inhibitions as both of our limbs engaged in a submerged hula dance to drive away tiny predators. I'm not quite sure what path we took as we idly chatted, but I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of this question - "So what's the deal with Americans and Donald Trump?"
A loaded question, and to be honest I didn't know how to respond at first. Her tone wasn't particularly insightful, so I wasn't sure if the question was simply inquisitive or more pointed. If her intent was to be pointed I can't say that I blame her. Trump's popularity among a subset of my fellow Americans continues to baffle me. If you know me at all you now that I'm unabashedly liberal, so it goes without saying that almost nothing that falls out of Trump's mouth resonates with me as a voter.
Or an American.
Or even as a decent human being.
"Honestly I don't know what to say. I'd like to think that he doesn't represent the vast majority of Americans, but he clearly has the support of a vocal group of people who's worldview I find contrary to American values."
She took my response and seemed to roll it around in her head for awhile, letting it soak in. "In New Zealand we also have our conservative parties and I tend to vote for them to be honest. But even as someone with conservative values I find him to be ridiculous. Why does he always want to blame other people for problems? It's China, it's Muslims, it's immigrants. Do people really think everything wrong in America is the fault of some other group of people?"
I let her words sink in quietly before replying. "I don't think that's a uniquely American experience. History is filled with examples of people blaming their problems on someone they perceive as an outsider. I don't follow New Zealand politics too closely but I'm sure with your colonial history people can turn to baser instincts when faced with a problem." The nibbles crept up my leg again as I became more engrossed with the conversation, drawing my concentration away from the constant sway of my limbs.
"Yes, true. Our relationship with the Maori hasn't always been great and there's still a lot of social problems, but we would never have a Presidential candidate say that Maoris are rapists or suggest we build a wall to keep them out of our society."
It's always an issue of severity, isn't it? I said, "I used to think we wouldn't either, and yet here we are." I noted that the sadness in my voice was quite noticeable.
She broke off the conversation for a bit as her son swam between us and she introduced him to me. He smiled and asked me a few questions about Chicago while frantically treading water, like a puppy tossed into a pond. We laughed a bit as he asked about the Bulls and Barack Obama, which these days are just about the only things foreigners seem to remember about the city I call home. As he swam off in pursuit of his sister she turned to me and said with a lighter tone, "I'm really not expecting you to speak for all Americans. It's just something I wanted to know about because it scares me to see someone seeking the presidency in a country as influential in the world as the US saying the kinds of things I've heard."
My eyes stayed on her two kids as they played in the lagoon without the weight of elections and geopolitics on their heads. I hadn't expressed it to anyone before, but I figured now was as good a time as any and admitted that I too was scared.
A short period of pregnant silence before she said, "The US has so much power. Political. Economic. Handing it all over to that man should scare everyone. I mean, we haven't always elected winners in New Zealand but we're not really risking starting World War III with our poor choices."
I nodded in agreement, wondering whether my fellow citizens think about the impact their votes have on the lives of people all across the world. I don't prescribe to the idea that my homeland is the "greatest country in the world" as many like to tout with smirking pride. Sure, I love where I'm from and think there are great things about the US, but there are great things about Peru, Belgium, and Kenya as well. Greatness isn't a competition with winners and losers, it's an aspiration which all nations angle toward but will realistically never achieve. It's definitely one of those "the journey is what it's all about" types of things. At least in my worldview.
And yet I cannot dismiss the fact that the US wields a hefty level of clout on the world stage. Decisions made in our halls of government can greatly impact the lives of people in far off lands immensely. I thought back to the American bubble so many people live in - the luxury of living in a world where you don't have to care about things like who's elected leader of some other country in a far off land. It can be easy to forget that the decision we make with out vote can resonate across the globe.
It's easy to forget that when Trump suggest building walls along our borders or Ted Cruz promises to make the sands of the Middle East glow from nuclear fallout, we're toying with global stability. But when a mother from New Zealand looks you in the face and says she's afraid of the choices your fellow Americans might make, it all comes home in a very personal way.
"I think he's rising now because he's the loudest voice in a crowded room. As time goes on I think he will slowly fade away. It's early in the election season, a lot can happen before November." Keep in mind that at the time I was floating in this pool at the base of a waterfall in rural Laos, it was very early in the presidential campaign season and the Republican field still had seventeen contenders. I laughed as I wrote this part of my memory, knowing of course that Trump did quite the opposite - he soared. He soared so high that he's currently leading the Republican field in delegates and the country is in a tizzy trying to figure out how to rein in this insanity.
"Well, that's comforting I suppose. I better getting going though. The little ones will likely drown soon with all that flapping about and my husband's been asleep much too long. It was really nice to meet you. We had a good chat, didn't we?"
I gave her a big smile and assured her that, yes, we had a very good chat.
Another series of nibbles ripped through my legs as the doctor fishes' endless vigil over my limbs paid off due to my distraction. As the woman swam off to climb out of the lagoon I thought about how those fish were like our fears. Lurking out of sight and nipping at our heels the second we let our guard down. Unlike a monster under the bed, the fish in that lagoon and our fears were both very real things.
While many times we try to dismiss fear as an imaginary bogeyman, I think it's important to acknowledge that sometimes you should be afraid. We need to know that sometimes that emotional nipping is a sign that something scary is just out of sight, ready to spring into reality if we aren't vigilant. Something like doctor fish in the lagoon.
Or a Trump presidency.
I never got the name of the woman that day, but I don't think I'll be forgetting her any time soon. I've thought of her often over the past few months as Trump rocketed to the front of the Republican pack of candidates. I can only imagine what her fear is like now that my prediction Trump would fade into obscurity proved to be so very wrong. Her fears were on my mind when I voted in the Illinois primary a few weeks ago and I'm certain I'll think of her when I vote in the election in November.
Only time will tell how things end up, but I genuinely pray that after November 8th she'll wake up in Queenstown and enjoy a fearless day.