"China 2010" story # 22

Xieng Men, Laos           September 7, 2010

"I'm a revolutionary," I told the French girl.

Laos had captivated me.
     After crossing over from China, I was in a land of rainforest hills and rice fields and frequent rainstorms, and small cubes where people lived beneath reed roofs and between thatched walls of tree bark and above wooden stilts. Northern Laos. In this country, nobody fawned over me or cared that I was a foreigner. It felt peaceful. Calm. Unambitious. The beat of Laos was the beat of my own heart.
     That first night, a band played over the speakers on my bus. A lazy guitar and synthesizers guided the music, which followed no rhythm but slowly created its own wandering path. Pacific shell sounds sweetened it. A man's hollow voice fell behind the music, and, because it was obligated to say things occasionally to keep the songs going, it whined.
     I've been told three names of this band's songs, including: "I would like to drink Lao food", "My girlfriend left me and now I don't have enough money to pay for the apartment", and "I have money". I would like to be able to understand this great band, which seems representative of Lao culture, which is supposed to be lazy.
     And two days after my arrival, a guy from Texas married to a Lao woman told me: "People say Laos is like Thailand twenty years ago. But, I think it's like Thailand fifty years ago."
     Sounds like a great place. So, I decided to try to make my Southeast Asian "thrump" (a three-month stay) be a Lao thrump. Woohoo!
     Of course, I was going to have to support myself while I did it. In Laos, this apparently was going to be tough. Maybe impossible.
     Hotel and restaurant employees make $36-49 a month; teachers $80. Yet, some sample expenses of mine would be: $37 for a one-month visa; $60 for one-month visa extensions; $7 for a map; $16 for an English-Lao dictionary; and about $6 a day for food and water.
     An American guy working for a non-profit organization, and his wife, had to wait eight months for his work visa to be approved.
     A German guy is volunteering here and paying a few hundred dollars a month towards renting a house.
     And the young-looking French girl has been here since January, volunteering fifty hours a week teaching English in a school. And she has managed to obtain for herself a chubby, 100% Lao baby named "Mimi". She lives in a guesthouse owned by the parents of her Lao boyfriend, yet she must pay $200 a month to them.
     She hopes to be able to start making some money in October.
     However, the guy from Texas said, "It's an easy country to stay in. If you've got a thousand dollars, you can have a business visa."
     Plenty of enterprising Westerners live and drive fancy cars, amongst the coconut palms and Buddhist towers of touristy Luang Prabang, where I've ended up. And Western tourists go kayaking and elephant-riding, enjoying their holidays.
     But, I didn't have $1000. I had half that, and a one-week-old camera that had become filled with Lao soy milk. I had been reduced to poverty. Frugality. Skimping. Counting every penny and every kip.
     At least I didn't have "Mimi".

One morning, a ten-year-old Lao girl came up to me and told me to buy one of her dolls or bracelets.
     She had a flat, coffee-brown face and black rainbow eyebrows way above her eyes; she sounded Caribbean, pronouncing vowel endings musically and consonant endings harshly. "Whe-un dit yoo-oo come too dee Luang Prabang?"
     When I said I had no money, she said, "Dat's okay. Yoo-oo ken go too dee ATM. Dee ATM righ ovurr day-urr." She was surprised when I said I have no ATM card. This little salesperson was tough to shake.

Come that afternoon, I was in a state of despair.
     I didn't know where to go with my bags. In this land, the sun was so heavy it hit your face like a hot, silver grill. For lack of anything better to do, I leaned against a wall.
     Again, the little salesperson came.
     "I ree-membuh yoo-oo. Do yoo-oo remembuh mee?"
     She gave me one of her bracelets. "It's fohr good luk." Her friend, another long-ponytailed (quieter) girl, also gave me a bracelet. The talkative girl's name was Ni. She said, "I guh-na tell yoo-oo sumtin'. I tell pee-pul deez tings are made in Lao. But, my mom, she buyyy dem in China."
     She hung around, giggling and pushing her friend and smiling a black-eyed, coconut-cheeked smile.
     She asked if I was hungry. "Yes." With some money I gave her, she bought me a plastic bag full of sticky rice and some dry meat jerky - a cheap meal. Ni said it would've cost more if I would've bought it. I was happy to have a friend in this tourist-business town; it would make my "thrump" easier.
     That evening, a wooden boat carried me across the slow Mekong River to Ni's village. I had planned to camp here since before meeting Ni. The boat trip cost me two-and-a-half times as many kip as a Lao person.
     ... Over the next two days, I contested this point. I never won the argument. Perhaps the prices were fixed by the country's communist government. In Asia, I've noticed, communism generally means the governments can impose laws or possess things without having to answer to their inhabitants - not that people live communally, as on classic Israeli kibbutzes, for example.
     Also, as in this case, it means the rules-enforcers are unyielding ...
     Ni, of course, invited me into her family's home.
     There, her kind parents and three siblings said I could stay for as long as I wanted. I would have to learn Lao to speak with them. Perfect.
     Relieved (and full of some more sticky rice), I slept on a mattress in a mosquito net.

The next day, I went to Luang Prabang to look for work.
     I visited the French girl. I told her about my new place of residence.
     To my shock, she said, "But it's forbidden for foreigners to sleep in Lao people's homes!" She said seriously, "It's very serious."
     "Aw, I don't care about that," I told her. "I'm a revolutionary."

That night, the police showed up at Ni's house. They wore the Lao military uniforms, which were a plant-green/muddy-river-brown mix.
     They recorded my passport info. Then, they ordered me to leave Xieng Men village and return to Luang Prabang. I relinquished hope of retaining my Lao family home; I couldn't stay. Darn!
     But, what concerned me at this time was that it was late and dark; I couldn't bare the stress of being overcharged on the ferry ride again then be stuck in Luang Prabang with no available campsites and its unfriendly guesthouses. I told the policeman I wouldn't go to Luang Prabang.
     The young, gentle-seeming, unsteady-in-English policeman was visibly surprised. He called his superior.
     "My boss says, if you won't go, I must fire you." "Shoot me!?" I said.
     I stood and told him to shoot. He didn't.
     Soon afterwards, I stood again and collected my bags in order to leave the home. The young cop took this as a sign of my compliance, and he walked ahead to lead me to the ferry. But, I turned the other way.
     He caught on and called after me.
     I kept walking.
     After a while, the second, older policeman passed by me at twelve miles an hour, hunching his toad-like body over a tiny motorcycle. He stopped in front of the school, to block the village pathway. But, the school was my destination. I walked up the steps, threw my bags over the wall, jumped over myself, and left the young, pedestrian officer a few feet behind.
     I walked through the dark schoolyard to the back of the school, where I knew there to be another wall I could jump across to reach a clear camping spot in the jungle. (I did not want to return to Luang Prabang.) But, since the coppers were on my tail, I climbed higher and deeper into the hilly jungle. Finally, I hid my bags in a bush and climbed a tree.
     At this point, the chase became a bit disappointing. Flashlights penetrated the forest remotely near me. But, the cops never came. They just called after me for a few hours.
     So, I came down from the tree, climbed a bit farther up the hill, and found a good place to set up my tent for the night. Actually, the spot was so steep I had to plant my foot on a tree below me to keep myself from sliding down to the cops.
     But, all in all, it was a better place to be than Luang Prabang.
     But, what would happen next!?
     Would a tiger eat me in my sleep?
     Would a pounding rain push my tent down the mountain??
     And would I be able to take down my tent without being spotted, swim across the Mekong River, and get somebody to bring my bags across on the ferry???
     To be continued ...

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