From The Balcony
Vientiane, Laos - My back is still killing me three days after that Thai massage in Khao Lak. Sometimes those girls can put a hurt on you, leaving you worse than when you came in, going everywhere but the one damn spot you asked them to give special attention.
In this case, an upper under-the-shoulderblade diagonal striatic muscle* two layers deep, requiring the girl to position herself on her knees to my right, and like a pianist, reach with both hands along that muscle under the shoulder blade, then with her finger tips, wiggle and dig past the muscle to the layer I’m talking about, then from the spinal side of the muscle, where you could get underneath it, pull back.
Wouldn’t that feel great?
It would have for me, had she done it, but she was all over the place with her forearm and elbow and all that special Thai technique, totally out of touch with the client. Even when I said, “Yeaaaaaah, right there,” she missed the boat, rolling over it a couple of times, but not getting it. You know what I mean? She just wasn’t getting it.
Instead, she messed up my lower back, flipping me over too fast halfway through the session. I didn’t want a head and scalp massage, dammit.
The plane flight wasn’t too uncomfortable, having been given three empty seats in an aisle row. Up out of Phuket, level off at 25,000 ft. for ten minutes, eat the boxed snack, spicy Thai salad, which wasn’t bad for airplane food, then land after a flight time of 1:10 at Suvanabhumi in Bangkok, where you couldn’t tell chaos had reined for weeks, bringing down the government and the Prime Minister, and just ended 12 hours ago.
Travel light. No baggage claim. Two-hour layover, switchover to here. Another good seat, another up, level off, descent, land. One hour. Twelve hours by train. Sixteen by bus. Digger has made the exhausting bus trip. When you’re my age, I told him, ‘roughing it’ isn’t appealing. Take a look around. You usually don’t see elderly couples out hitchhiking or packpacking.
A few, you do, but most prefer to travel in comfort. Or just sit in Arizona.
So, How are your knees, hips, joints and back?
In good shape, I hope. I can bear witness to what 50 yrs. of basketball can do to a skeleton. At one point, perhaps during a reunion, I bragged that I’d be hoopin’ thirty years after my classmates had hung up their jocks. Yeah, you know what they say about braggarts eating their words.
There was a recent study saying you women are more realistic about feeling your age, whereas we guys will say we feel ten, twelve years younger, a self-perception thing. They didn’t say anything about acting.
Down on the streets, four stories and fifty-seven steps below, a ten-year old boy is having a conversation with an adult man and woman, squatting on the curb at the end of the day. She’s counting her money, laughing.
The kid has been out there all day with his two-wheeled cart and scales, selling miniature oranges. From here, I can’t tell if they are his parents.
Not far away, five men drinking at a table briefly but loudly join in singing a song blaring on a Lao restaurant radio.
The city looks like it hasn’t changed much, since the last decade or the beginning of time, dusty, in continual rubble and reconstruction, and thrown backward, like all the Lao cities positioned along the Mekong, the only communication and commerce artery to millions of landlocked inhabitants in Luang Prabang to the north, here in Vientiane, downriver in Savannakhet, Pakxe and Champassak.
Unlike Khao Lak, targeted by Germans and Swedes as the primo tropical holiday destination, Vientiane is swarming with French, as it has been since the land became ‘French Indochina’ in 1850. It’s a nice change of atmosphere, in many ways. It’s quieter. There are croissants and good bread, cheese, and wine. For two years, now, the city has caught up with the demands of a crush of tourism, with ATMs and internet shops easily available.
Everything is easily available. Ten minutes out of the airport, I was booked in and out on the streets. Five minutes on the street, Mr. Gooney Bird just off the flight, I was offered ganja, the good stuff, he said, opium, heroin, the strongest in the world, and sex massage by a remarkably convincing and beautiful ladyboy, intercepting me on the sidewalk.
You’re supposed to say to all of them, “No, thank you,” unless you’re interested, of course, and I knew better than to engage in conversation. I didn’t need no kind of ride.
“Look, I told her, “I just got here, ok? I’d like to get something to eat and kind of walk around.” Then I thought to ask, “How much you need?”
“One thousand baht,” she said.
“Still no way.”
So, if you’re a tall, single balding adult male, you’re an obvious standout target to the taxi drivers, the girl escorts for however long you pay, and the ladyboys. You might as well be wearing a big red X on your back.
They figure the reason you’re here is you’re a junkie, a pervert, or a sex-starved loser in his own country, maybe all three. Not a sightseer. At mid-afternoon, a driver right outside the hotel offered me a fifteen-year old. “I have very nice girls,” he said, picking his teeth.
Now, you might be thinking, a lot of that might be appealing to a lonely old man, and you’re right, but there are still a lot of first-time-in-my-life experiences I prefer to avoid by choice, knowing by now what roads will take you where.
So you see guys all over the place, balding, gut hanging out, walking around with these young, beautiful Lao girls in high heels. Same same Thailand. Five years ago, you didn’t see it here, much, the Lao being more reserved than the Thai, but hey, it’s just business.
The asking price for the ganja was a thousand baht, thirty-four bucks; three thousand for the heroin, just over a hundred US dollars, and what did she say for the sex massage? You heard it. Everything is negotiable. Unless they're working solo, the taxi driver, everybody takes a cut, whatever is being sold. The end-user consumer pays for it all.
This is all in the midst of vast temple complexes encompassing entire city blocks, the young novice monks out on the street late, escapees from the wat, checking out videos, stocking up at the mini-mart.
Most of this activity is near the riverfront. Deeper into the city the scene is different, but this is where the businesses catering to the tourists are concentrated. There’s the morning market, a city block of three floors of shopping under one roof, a maze of stalls of traditional woven cloth, silver, gold traders, cell phones, you name it, DVDs, cameras, clothing, everything, silver dragon lighter cases…that which I actually came for, and a ‘Sabaidee’ T-shirt for Digger.
Yeah, I came here for the silver lighter case, lost in the back of a Bangkok tuk tuk. All the rest is just extra.
This morning, down at the desk, I asked the pleasant lady which government ministry I needed to see for permission to access restricted areas, and she asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“The Ho Chi Minh Trail,” I said, and she replied, “My brother was a guide for a woman who wrote a book on it.”
It’s here in the room on loan, the book. You could call it coincidence, but maybe we’re doing what we should be doing. Sure, a lot of people have traveled the trail and written about it, but my particular interest is in UXO, which you may know already.
After being conceived in 1998, the plan was initiated four years ago, no, ten, but then the tsunami and some other stuff happened, and, damn, here it is 2008 going on nine that I’m just, y’know, getting back on track.
“What about that Ho Chi Minh Trail UXO story, Blovic?”
“I’m gettin’ right on dat, boss.”
I’ve already done the research. I just need to go there. Maybe you’ll buy the story. I need an editor to motivate my ass. I also need an editor to go over this stuff before I let it fly, right? I’ll try to make it up to you.
Trying to walk off a backache and two, maybe three kilos, eating light. Sitting there along the River, eating light when approached by Olaf from Sweden and Kristiana from Denmark. Sure, you can join me, I told them, and Olaf IMMEDIATELY began into a political discussion, and insisted it was my job to inform the American people of…the truth.
Wouldn’t you know it? I gotta be the guy?
He kept hitting my shoulder about every few minutes, making a point, or chumming it up, but after the third time I found it irritating. They were okay light dinner company, I don’t want to be too judgemental, that’s just the way it was. I was glad for the company, actually. It always makes the food better.
Our conversation covered George Bush, American agression in the world, and our general ignorance of things beyond our borders, Barack Obama, Swedish politicians, Oil, Extremism, Thailand, the Lao, who liked what better, the marsala, alcoholism in Sweden, the Muslims in Singapore and Indonesia; Indonesia, where he lived for nine years and couldn’t stand it anymore, and just about anything else that could come to the mind of a man working on his second bottle of Beer Lao.
I didn’t offer much, except to say where I was from and that I was a writer, and Kristiana didn’t offer much, either, except an opinion on extremism, open prostitution in the city, and that she and her two brothers, Leonardo and Raphaelo, were named after Italian painters. I’m not sure what she wanted me to do with that information, but to put it here, pass it along to you.
She was dying to tell me that, with certain elaboration, it occurred to me later, the same as how I love for people to ask me what I do or have I been here before, so I can spill out some shit that’s intended to impress them.
“What do you do?”
“I do a lot of things.”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
No. We’re dying to talk about it, like Ken and his three buddies from Toronto, on the balcony, giving me a full itinerary, from Austrailia to the drunken beach parties on the islands of south Thailand, to Cambodia to Vietnam to here. He related two separate odd coincidences during his travels, accidentally running into people from his school. Just a coincidence, both times.
Sure, we like to talk about it.
Just a picture of the street, y’know, what it’s like for a guy like me, trying to pay attention. Just trying to walk fully erect, a straight line, unbroken, trying to avoid being yanked too far left or right from alignment, harmonic balance, full stride, full extension of the comfort zone to the moons of Jupiter, just shy of critical mass.
Trying not to be judgemental of the impatient waiter, the indifferent vendor, the pimp/hustler/dealer/taxi driver, the beggar with her infant, the prostitute, the radiant young French couple, the two tall Taiwanese on the temple tour, allowing the world to arrive uncensored, unsullied by my fuzzy, skewed evaluation. Is it possible to accept it as it is, accept people as they are?
Just a picture of the street, looking down from the 4th floor balcony on Hangboun Road, a couple blocks from the Mekong.
New cars, old trucks, lots of motorbikes, three-wheeled motorbike taxis with slipping clutches and squeaky brakes, noodle shops, a big vegetable stand, a Lao restaurant, a new mini-mart on the corner, guesthouses, taileurs, Lao silver and handicrafts, laundry, money exchanges, and night markets along the river, people everywhere. People, everywhere in the world. Bustling. Who here would care about a refugee in Darfur? They’ve never heard of the Sioux.
The shops are shuttering closed now, the proprietors retreating to the rear or living quarters on the second or third floors. Large piles of bagged trash are at the curb, people milling around the portable noodle vendors. They don’t see me. As a rule, people don’t look up.
The dictionary says this word doesn’t exist, but I think you can picture it, right?