Vientiane, Laos – There’s an ice cream shop not too far from here, a few hours drive up in the mountains, called ‘The End of The World Café’, where you can obtain what they claim to be the best homemade ice cream in the world. You’re as far from home as you can possibly get, and from there, if you proceed any further, you begin coming back.
Like an ingrown hair, or Einstein’s view of the universe, you begin bending back until you eventually arrive where you began.
This place, Vientiane, abounds with Frenchmen. From observation and practice, I’ve learned to copy their walk, which is more accurately described as a ‘stroll’, hands clasped behind the back, chin up, presumptuous, outward manifestation of proprietary right.
Like their former glorious kingdom, their clothing appears to have seen better days. Well-worn suit jacket, dress slacks or blue jeans with a belt, white long-sleeve shirt rolled up, tucked in, and dress shoes with black socks. Thin, lanky, retired civil servants, not enough vegetables, not enough sun. Shoulder bag of important papers. Unshaven. That’s the look. And the scarf. How can you forget the scarf.
The Lao men have copied the shoes, slacks, and white shirt. It’s the Europeans, fresh from Thailand’s beaches, who’ll go to dinner in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. ‘Crusty’ describes those who have been here a while, differentiating themselves from the new arrivals, same same soldiers in Vietnam. We called them ‘Hard Core’ and ‘Newbies’, or FNGs, ‘Fuckin’ New Guys.’
Why does this guy always seem compelled to bring Vietnam into practically everything he writes? He’s like Walter in ‘The Big Lebowski.’ Can’t seem to bring himself back from the past.
Do titles need quote marks and italic? Could one of you journalists or grammarians tell me? Email answer.
Spent the last three days with one of the three Nigerians, working with him on his visa paperwork, a fabrication, vouching my sponsorship in the US of his person, a piece of work requiring ten minutes, that my new friend Ali-Bibbi stretched into three days, taking the letter through five internet drafts and necessitating me and one of the staff to make repeated trips up and down four floors to meet with him in the lobby, since they don’t have phones in the rooms here.
That’s why my knee is sore and swollen today, something immediately noticed by a taxi driver, three blocks down the street on my way to dinner. “You’re limping,” he said. “Taxi?”
He motioned me over. “You want marijuana?” he asked softly. “Opium? Hashish?”
“How much?” I asked.
“For the marijuana?” he asked.
“For any of it.”
“One hundred thousand kip,” he said.
“Nah,” I told him.
He immediately said, “Fifty-thousand, for you.”
I asked him, “You got anything stronger?”
Fifty thousand kip is about six bucks, just to give you an idea of the relative value of things. I proceeded on to dinner at my favorite French restaurant just a few blocks away and spent five dollars on a modest, but fine meal.
The Nigerians said they couldn’t get entry visas into Thailand, which I found astounding.
Cambodia, yes. Vietnam, China, Laos, Myanmar, yes. Thailand, no. They were familiar with all of the dozen or so African musicians I reeled off, telling me the best music came from their home. Ali-Bibbi found me this morning at the coffee café outside the mini-mart, where Paul had just purchased the second round.
A first impression of Paul is ‘Freddie’, as in, the horror picture guy, or ‘Freak Show’, in the movie, ‘Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle’. Paul, a fixture in Vientiane, an Australian citizen, stuck here illegally without a visa, rides a bike around with all his possessions in big saddle bags, and three pairs of shoes hanging off his handlebars, another bag of stuff in the basket.
You’ve seen the shopping cart homeless and long-haul, over-the-road, looks-like-he-could-use-a-shower people like that. Paul has two teeth, neither good, and his head is shaved, except for a small tuft in the back, about six inches long.
He needed a computer lesson, he said, and I said sure, remembering what dad always said about people asking your help or a favor; if it’s within your capability, do it.
“Depends on what it is,” I told him.
He was sitting bare-chested outside a guesthouse, his bike right there, propped up against a street pole, sewing on his multi-colored, multi-patched vest, his only upper-body clothing. It looked like it came from someplace like Nepal, the vest he was working on. The bike looked like it had been parked beside a train track for a long time. Had that diesel locomotive look about it.
He was mad, he said, from some people earlier who had kept staring at him. “I felt like getting up and popping them,” he said.
I sat down at his table. “Well, Paul,” I began. “Check yourself out. You’re not the average guy walking around. Of course people are going to stare at you. You know how people are. People are going to stare at you, man, wherever you go. You can’t be mad at them for being people.”
He agreed, and the talk went from anger to gems and his friend trying to sell a hotel in Warick, Queensland Australia, to the cosa nostra and the illuminati to ancestral memory to darfur to his time in prison, to Chinese healing medicine to cosmic vibratory level to REM sleep to the lymphatic system to about how his mother laid him out with a frying pan one day because he wouldn’t eat his meat, to black holes to mass consciousness to the magnetosphere, to the trouble in northern Spain and Greece and Pakistan, to the Egyptians, to vegetarianism, to chemical poisons, to dental work, to inbreeding, a subject he keeps coming back to, to cellular regeneration, to DNA, to terrorism, and a few other things, tying it alllllllllllllll together.
This is all in an Australian accent, right? Wrapped it up with a request for a computer lesson today. At one point in the conversation, he got up, and laid down on the sidewalk, no shirt, tourists and Lao nationals walking around him, checking him out, while he demonstrated two exercises; the first, on your back, hands clasped behind your head, lifting each leg, and the other, on your stomach, arch your back, and rock.
“Yeah, Paul,” I told him. “I get the idea.”
Paul has a special interest in gems, and mails them home, he said.
When we left, this morning after a three-hour computer lesson, he said he had the coffee covered, but the lady there said he only bought three cups, and we owed for five, so I paid her the dollar for the other two.
So I need to give this knee a rest. It’s because of Ali-Bibbi and the stairs, and that ten kilometer ‘Made You Laugh’ walk to Patuxay park the other day. Answer some emails, do some writing.