I planned to find work in Thailand. I also anticipated my Lao language skills would be helfpul in Isaan (northeastern Thailand), home to twenty million Lao people - four or five times Laos's entire population!
But, I became sick. Seeing as how I'd ridden in the backs of bumpy trucks and tuk-tuks while hitchhiking, and I'd walked around polluted Vientiane, and I'd sustained myself on cookies before that, I probably deserved it.
My nose started producing buckets full of yellow and red mucus. (I never actually put it in buckets, though.) I coughed. I lay in bed all day. Whenever I went outside, I wilted under the heat. The guy whom I was staying with, in Loei, Thailand, took me to the hospital, where it sounded like I got diagnosed with sinusitis.
While sick, I didn't write any stories. I rarely wrote in my journal. I ignored my policy of getting sunlight every day.
I put no effort into learning Thai. The language had many words in common with Lao. The waviness of its alphabet resembled the stupas of Buddhist temples, and its loops resembled jewels, but its lines were more harsh and jerky than Lao's. It had the same nineteen vowels as Lao, but forty-two consonants compared to twenty-four, including seven t's. Why all the t's?
And I didn't go out and expore the culture too much.
To put it simply, I wasn't my usual traveling self who made full use of his time. Giant Asia had worn me out.
Mostly, I just slept and went out to eat twice a day. My host, a thirty-one-year-old who'd left England for the first time to teach in Thailand, had just bought a motorbike. He drove us around gritty white Loei, a little and compact town in Isaan. My host Adam knew a few Western teachers here, but Western tourists rarely came. Thus, it represented an uncontaminated Thai culture - except for the four separate 7-11 stores.
Sometimes, I tried to explore the culture. I watched guys play rattanball in the park. They called me to play once - which was what I'd always wanted, to do frog-legged serves and flipping spike kicks - but I abstained, not wanting to take the place of a short guy who wanted to play. Also, I'd foreseen that my first flipping spike kick attempt probably would've embarrassed me.
Still weak, I could do little other than go to restaurants with Adam and his buddies. I certainly wasn't going to find work this way. But, I did get to experience some of the inedible ingredients and barely edible dishes of Thai culture. For example, I said, "Ugh yek!", while eating:
chunks of red chili peppers, so spicy I'd hear every cell of my throat screaming; green, tasteless stalks; the curled-up branches of immature banana fruit, kind of like an avocado but so dry it made my whole face pucker up; "knuckly" meat and inedible brown leaves, in red curry; and bony fish in a liquidy sauce.
On the other hand, most of the meals made me happy to be sick in Thailand. I liked the 30 baht ($1) meals:
"kao phat muu" (fried rice w/eggs & pork); "muu tot gratiem" (shriveled, well-done pork w/baked garlic, over rice); phad thai - flimsy noodles & brown sugar & chicken & tiny shrimp & peanuts; chicken on a stick, w/cashew-and-honey curry; thick rice in boiling broth with tasty pork morsels and leafy vegetables (for breakfast); and a shredded & orange, cobwebby w/green beans, HOT! w/chilis dish (in the Bangkok airport).
And I loved the slightly-more-expensive dishes:
the aforementioned red curry, milky and hot, with chunks of sweet bell peppers inside; crumbly, succulent pork, oily with tiny chili's on top - awesome!; and baked egg roll halves to be dipped in a cheesecake-crust/mango-chutney sauce and wrapped in leaves (in a Vietnamese restaurant).
And, the best meal cost $50! Just kidding. It cost about $3:
"Sumtam" (green papaya salad with tomatoes, peanuts, inedible lime wedges, chili's to make it spicy, pineapples to make it sweet if desired, and fish sauce dressing) lay before me and the teachers.
We pulled handfuls of sticky rice out of the bamboo-woven cylinders (glongs?) that Southeast Asians keep rice warm in. We grabbed oily peaces of grilled pork. We dipped them in a sauce so good that life hardly seemed living without it. My best guess at describing it would be to call it a "garlic-apple-chili-fishsauce sauce". Wow! Mecca. Food enthusiasts should've made great pilgrimages to this sumtam restaurant.
While we teachers ate, I actually learned something about my job prospects. The Thai schools would all be going on break for the month of October. Darn! An impatient guy, I couldn't wait that long if what I wanted was a teaching job. Darn. Thus, instead of getting to teach in Thailand, I just watched Adam go to work and heard his and his friends' stories. I could get used to this life. "Pass the sumtam, please."
Adam from the countryside dressed professionally to teach science in English, and English. But, his local high schoolers responded to his creative lesson plans with little effort. Meanwhile, a half-Thai Californian named Johnny said he would give copies of the tests to his students beforehand, and yet they'd still score badly or fail. These beige, dark-haired students may've been lazy, but whenever Adam greeted them in town, their worry-free faces lit up. Unambitious and happy.
Johnny was dating a thin girl with big, lazy boobs who enjoyed smiling and being lazy. She and her young male cousin could speak Lao with me. However, Johnny told us that some of his students who had Lao-speaking parents didn't know how to speak Lao. The parents wanted them to know Thai (and then English), not the language of their region. I understood then that my Lao skills would be of little use here. This realization made me feel tired. I needed the forty-two consonants of Thai.
Bachelor Adam needed the forty-two consonants of Thai because he yearned to go out and hit on girls - an activity that had nothing to do with teaching. (But, it was an important part of the culture that I wanted to hear about!) Adam went out all the time, but he never actually hit on the girls. He was too shy.
But, he did notice that the waitresses wore shimmering, short dresses. And very young girls in bikinis danced on-stage in the nightclubs. Johnny would insist that these girls, a.k.a. "coyotes", and indeed every female customer or employee in the nightclubs, would have sex for money.
-- Interjection: I heard from several sources that the Thai definition of "monogamy" was in many cases very loose. Also, it should be pointed out that the country's "sex tourism" often targets Thai men, and not just foreigners, as is the case in Loei. Perhaps there's a connection between the loose monogamy and the sex tourism (which I'd say is prevalent in Thailand but not common in Laos, despite my experience with Noy). And though I'm not a proponent of monogamy, I believe that exchanging material goods for sex, an intimate and possibly harmful act, damages one's spirit. But, others would argue it's an honest business.
-- Incidentally, I perceived that, in Thailand, the dirt on the country's Buddhist, elephant temples represented neglect, that the religion had become obsolete. In Laos, where people more eagerly became monks, the "blackening over time" of the stone monuments seemed to preserve the religion and make it more firmly rooted. But, I was only in these countries a little while. So, what do I know? --
Adam disagreed with Johnny's statement that every girl who went to nightclubs was for sale. I didn't know one way or the other; but my most comfortable, romantic relationship with an Asian woman occured while I was in Loei. She sometimes went to clubs. And yet the only material goods we exchanged were a Kitkat and ... oh, yeah, there was a wallet.
The wallet was a gift to me from Zippy. If only there'd been some money in it, I could've kept on sleeping and eating phad thai and not looking for work for a few weeks more.
Twenty-eight-year-old Zippy had made it by sewing ten zippers together. This created a carrying case that could be opened from all kinds of confusing angles, none of which was convenient for putting anything in or out. I loved it! Zippy used to sell them while at college. I liked her nickname.
Nowadays, she ran her own English school out of her parents' garage. She wore long dresses and sleeveless tops, and she confidently said, "I'm open", and kept no secrets. The poor girl said she'd only kissed one guy - once! - in the last four years. She may not have been a typical Thai girl. But, when I saw her pointy ears and slender arms and plump cheeks, I could imagine her in a yellow single-strap dress, dancing her arms like a snake, entertaining an ancient Thai jungle king.
And she gave me some strong advice, at a time when I was confused about what I should do, but no money for my love.
On October 6th, I was poised to give up my feeble job search and leave Loei the next day to fly home.
Two Western teachers walked into the coffee shop where Adam and I discussed philosophy, and they told us some schools not far from Loei wanted an English teacher. Classes would be beginning in about two weeks. I could go check it out, said Adam, helpfully.
No!! I said. I couldn't wait that long to begin. And I was tired.
Maybe that was dumb of me??
The next day, Zippy used her father's police discount to get me a cheap bus ticket to Bangkok.
But, I didn't fly home just then. I wandered all the way to the south of Thailand to look for work, before giving up. By that point, it was mid-October, and I began to think I should go back up to Loei and ask those schools for work.
Ugh, I couldn't handle another bus ride, though. And I was down to $57. I'd hit the wall. I also realized what it was that I missed most about home:
Cooking! I missed potatoes. Cheese. Milk. Not rice, dammit! I mean, I loved rice. But, it couldn't sustain a tall guy like me with my super-metabolism.
So, I flew home. "Bye, Zippy!"
I'd wanted to spend ten months in Asia. (I wanted to make it to India for December.) I only spent seven-and-a-half.
No worries. It was still a great trip!
Thanks for reading.
love, Modern Oddyseus
Much thanks to Adam Prance (who writes at www.travelpod.com/members/asphalt_pilgrim) for the place to stay!