Wrestling With Their Angels
Vientiane, Laos – Sat in the slipstream of a Lao spicy papaya salad ignition and liftoff, watching the sun slide down over Nong Khai, Thailand, and the Mekong River, distant black shapes of silhouetted fishermen in flat bottom boats hauling in their nets for the day, water rising off my scalp and dripping down my back, off my forehead, into the bowl.
“You want spicy?” she had asked.
“Yeah, sure. Tammai m’dai? Why not?” I said, fully knowing the consequences.
She just smiled and walked away.
The impact of western ideas and commercial enterprise is evident in the city, formerly paranoid and restrictive before Lao communism eventually awoke and unfolded to the world in this landlocked country.
It is here that you can still discover the timid innocence of the Lao, what they say Thailand was three decades ago, before being polluted and corrupted by a Western onslaught and overkill. Some say the tsunami was karmic revulsion to rape of her beaches and islands.
It is already happening. Tourism is driving the country under. Like a scientist skewing the results by his/her mere observation, I too am part of both the affliction and the cure, a driving force in the economy, allowing for economic development and boom boxes thundering down the street in shiny new low-riders, just like your town.
Somebody’s making money.
So you’ve got this back-in-time thing clashing with the New World Order. It’s interesting. They see the value in customer service. It’s more than just making the money.
He can’t parallel park his brand new Mercedes. Got out, still three feet from the curb.
What happened to all the old cars? They aren’t present. Everything is new but for the tuk tuk taxis and big thundering trucks. Everybody is driving brand new shit, Audis and Mercedes and big Toyota trucks. Yesterday, two Ferraris racing down the avenue. Like the guy down on the street who couldn’t park. Looked to be in his late twenties, him and his old lady. Brand new Benz.
They All Seemed Hungry
‘Tis the season, as they say. And yes, Santa Craws come to Lao.
I saw him at a restaurant reception desk last night. He’d lost several kilos. He said he hadn’t been eating, demonstrating the slack in his belt and his ill-fitting Santa suit.
The dog approached my table with that same look in his eye as the husband-less beggar mothers carrying infants on their hips, approaching the breakfasting foreigners, the mostly French captive audience at the sidewalk café tables outside the Joma coffee house.
The street beggars know how to work the crowds. It is the giving of others that sustains their existence. Just another form of welfare, social security, whatever you want to call it. Those who have, give to those who haven’t. I once told the kids down on the Pearl Street mall in Boulder, CO, “What if that guy was Jesus in disguise, just testing me?”
It must have worn off, or sunk in, as I witnessed Digger giving spare baht to the street beggars in Bangkok. "It all comes back," he said.
People might say, “You can’t give to them all.” Sez who? If a lot of people give a little, then what?
The guy who rides the tricycle, propelling it with a upright hand-drive lever, the guy crippled from the waist down, his legs atrophied, dragging himself around by his hands, his dirty pant legs dragging on the sidewalk behind him, saw me sitting at breakfast. He’d hit me up before, and crawled up to my table, looking for spare kip, maybe a dollar.
I immediately motioned for him to join me, and he hauled himself up onto the chair with practiced efficiency. He ordered a coffee and a cinnamon roll, telling me he was waiting for a shop to open so he could fix his handlebars. They were loose. He didn’t speak English, and we communicated over our breakfast in sign language. When we left, we thanked each other with a glance and a nod.
Nong Noi, the pretty little ladyboy, works the shaded tree-lined avenue running a full block around the walled temple, That Ong Teu. There’s three of them that collect there after dark, helping one another with their make up and looks. It’s odd, to me, that they should be right outside the temple, the monk training school. A sort of psychic refuge, perhaps, working the single males coming or going in the direction of the fountain restaurants or the beer garden.
I have to say, Noi is very exceptional, but like they say, ‘Man, if you ain’t sure, it’s a dude.’
Plus, they are more aggressive than the girls. Noi stepped from the shadows when she saw me returning from dinner. “Can I walk with you tonight?” she asked. “I can massage.”
“I don’t think so, Noi,” I told her. “I go kon diao, only one. Did you eat yet?”
She said she hadn’t. I gave her enough for dinner, and she asked for taxi money, but I knew it was a lie, continuing on my way. I don’t know what they do, take it up the ass, smoke the carrot, do you some kinda way, I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain it’s more than a massage.
Seems easier just to give them the money straight out, expecting nothing in return. It keeps it simple, and uninvolved. Like Johnny Carson once said, "Next time, instead of getting married, I'm going to find a woman I don't like, and give her a house."
Talking to Noi can feel extremely self-conscious, like the taxi drivers already clued me, right? And all the shopkeepers and restaurateurs know what's up on the street. But she’s just another human being, no? There seemed to be a lot of pain and desperation in those eyes.
Hey, I went swimming today, too, trying to work off three meals a day, the only person in the six-lane Vientiane pool. I’m not pimping around at night, lurking around the side streets, just so you know. I usually get back at a decent time, avoiding the midnight trolls, just so you know. I deal with merchants, immigration officials, the staff at the desk, English lessons everywhere...not just the outcasts. I did, however, attempt some strong drugs, and became so paranoid, I flushed the remainder down the toilet. Won’t say what kind, but that it was stronger than aspirin.
And by a whole 'nuther strange set of coincidental circumstances, I met the guide who took another author down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the first westerners to traverse the old, non-commercialized trail, the ‘Western Trong Son’, officially, 'The Freedom Trail.' *
Now I’ve got maps of the old trails, the old bases, and a good indication of how to do it, requiring multiple-entry visas into Vietnam and Cambodia. So, I’m not just sitting around eating and swimming and feeding the dogs. I’m ON that story, Ed. I’m ON IT, Boss. It's only been ten years. Gimmie a break. It's not like they gave me an advance.
*Yes, there is an Eastern Trong Son, running east of the Annamite range, within Vietnam. The Western Trong Son is in Laos and Cambodia, saturated with UXO, and very much still a part of the people' lives who live there.