Many times since my accident, I’ve thought about Marianna – a thirty-something Italian woman I met in early 2008, both of us traveling solo through Laos. I thought of her while being tended to by Italian medical staff in the Emergency surgical centre in Cambodia; when I was back in Bangkok and wondered if she might be there too, in transit on her way to India or Indonesia; even when I was back in North America, eager to contact the headquarters of the hospital’s foundation in Milan – and hoping that Marianna could perhaps translate a letter of gratitude.
I often wondered why my emails to her remained unanswered. I was curious about her whereabouts, because it was clear from the outset that we were equally adventurous and curious about the world. Kindred pilgrim spirits.
I imagined she was either still at home in Rome or back to her traveling ways, perhaps again in Asia or off to Africa – especially Mozambique, because we often talked about our mutual desire to visit that country. We even entertained the possibility that our paths might cross there – if our respective journeys happened to coincide.
I last heard from Marianna in May 2008. I thought of her again today, after a discussion over last night’s dinner sparked a memory of our adventures in a Laotian cave. I decided to Google Marianna’s name. Among the top-ten sites I discovered an Italian-language webpage with a photo of a young African boy next to her beaming face – with the phrase Dedicato a Marianna. My heart skipped a beat. No, I thought, impossible. Instead of reading about her latest adventures in Mozambique, as I’d expected, I learned instead that she had been killed there in a bus accident… in September of 2008.
Google is a horrible way to learn about the death of someone with whom you have broken bread; with whom you have journeyed above and below ground, with whom you have danced up a storm; with whom you’ve learned how monks apply gold leaf to Buddha statues; chartered a tuk-tuk to a remote forest for a nature hike; and watched the sun set over the Mekong.
We met in the back of a rickety covered pick-up truck somewhere in the middle of Laos. Naturally, the Laotian passengers were stunned to see two single foreign women traveling on their own – in their little godforsaken part of the country. We became fast friends… especially when we were dropped off at a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere, and I discovered to my great dismay – and thanks to Marianna’s sudden shrieking – that an acidic substance, inadvertently leaked into our travel compartment without notice, had burned a frisbee-sized hole through the backside of my only pair of khakis. How we howled with laughter!
Marianna truly lived her life with gusto. She craved traveling beyond her conventional life, eagerly learned about different cultures and foods, and reveled in discovering the wonders of nature. Still today, I vividly remember Marianna’s sparkling eyes, her feisty spirit, her voracious appetite for books, the objets-trouves jewelry that dangled from her arms, collected from faraway lands. Marianna was always adorned in color: harem pants, embroidered shoulder bags, multilingual t-shirts and scarves. Her boldness and self-confidence more than made up for her petite stature. She never hesitated to speak up, to ask for directions and to shun a flirty Laotian guy with grace and style.
On our last day together, in Savannaket, we did a bit of laundry, spent time in an internet café, walked through a city market and returned to visit the friendly monks. Then Marianna left on an overnight bus back to Bangkok, while I continued on to Vietnam. Our paths diverged, Marianna going west, while I headed east. She would then continue on to Australia and New Zealand. I could never have imagined that it would be the last time we would meet; our emails en route were peppered with references to our next reunion: Africa or Nepal? Mongolia or Rome?
In her last email to me, Marianna wrote enthusiastically about a meditation retreat she had attended in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She considered developing her meditative practice further by spending time in northern India. Marianna tried convincing me to join her in her quest: “maybe north India together???” Her other options included heading to Cuba to witness the end of Fidel’s dictatorship or to visit friends in Mozambique… Today, deep in my heart, I wish I would have chosen to meet Marianna in India – if only, just possibly, mercifully, to have averted both of our accidents.
It saddens me deeply to think that I will never have a chance to curl up on a sofa in her home, sipping a real Italian cappuccino, sharing anecdotes from our adventures and volunteer projects abroad, our dreams and passions. Though we spent a mere week together, each moment of those days was filled with creative explorations, interesting people, food and sights. Invariably, many of my best memories from Laos will forever be inextricably linked to Marianna’s spirit.
I cannot fathom the devastating toll that Marianna’s sudden death has taken on her family, friends, colleagues – and the Mozambican villagers and children she had been living amongst at the time. Words cannot express my sorrow and sympathy. I have missed Marianna since we parted nearly two years ago, and I miss her even more now.