Sunday, January 25, 2009

Writing On The Wall


Luang Prabang, Laos – Somebody said the water never comes up this high, way up here on the seawall, three dozen meters above the water’s edge. But then downriver just last year, Vientiane flooded for the first time in recorded history.

All up and down the Mekong, the water and its banks indicate two phases marking the high and low season, carving out a steep, sandy, semi-permanent ten or fifteen-foot embankment. Then, at least right around here, everything goes sharply uphill to the top of Mt. Phousi, and the temple.

You could also say everything proceeds down from Mt. Phousi to the Mekong. All the water, all the gutters, everything is flowing to the river. All the side streets slope upward, and the major horizontal thoroughfares carved out of the mountain in successive stages. A massive grid of narrow interconnecting brick alleyways connects all of it.

Dense jungle vegetation exists everywhere, with tall, ancient trees with huge roots, giving the distinct impression that civilization literally hacked out a tenuous, albeit three millennia existence here. I can only identify the coconut palms, but right here there are several dozen of species of trees and bushes. There is plastic everywhere. Is it up to me to pick it up?


Aqualung on the Seawall*

Seven middle schoolgirls on five bikes stop on their way home from school to gather fruit from one of the trees near the seawall, three of the girls unabashedly climb the tree in their traditional skirts, up into the upper branches to shake the tree. Their friends on the ground scurry to gather the small sour fruits like children after taffy thrown from a parade float.

They approach to ask my name, laugh, ask where I’m from, and see what I’m doing, hovering around the computer and staring as I write, leaning on me and making me feel uncomfortable to the extreme. I was forced to quit writing and sit up, just so they’d back off a little bit.

Any place in the U.S. of America, there would be a couple of police squad cars arriving shortly. Someone is going to drop that dime and make the simple cell phone call, complicating someone’s life immensely. Those things are going to happen in a predatory society.

Rip-offs, scams and predators, from park bench and internet to back street and Wall Street. Everybody is devouring someone else, a sort of weird Dracula thing going on, in a figurative sense, of course.

These girls however, shy as they generally are, are amazingly fearless of the world, inquisitive, and talkative, even though only one of them could speak fractured English, laughing and trying to spit out the only English she knew, trying to communicate, serving as interpreter for the others.

They left on their bicycles, looking back and waving as they rode down the street.


Go Head, It’s Your Call

It’s a first-person story, filled with ‘I’s. Sorry. What can you do?

I forgot to tell you about the ATM keys. While in Vientiane, upon a visit to the ATM (‘All The Money’) machine early one morning, to my amazement, someone had carelessly left a large ring of keys lying on top of the ATM, still stuck in the ATM’s padlock.

‘This is highly irregular,’ I thought, then took the keys and lock into the adjacent bank lobby, and without saying a word, held them up in the air for several workers there to look up, recognize in astonishment, then thank me effusively in embarrassment for returning them.

It was only when later, thinking, ‘You…stupid…ignorant fool. You could have cleaned out the ATM, there in that small enclosure and nobody would have known. You could have had the BMW, the boat, that dream vacation to Kyrgyzstan, and maybe even a castle in the woods painting by Gracie Tyndall.’

I thought to request a stranger…anyone…to come along and ‘please kick me squarely in the ass, wouldja?’ but before such a person should appear, thought again. Yeah, the whole robbery would be captured on video. Sure.

They would see my eyes growing wide, then wider, then a big-ass smile cross my face…then the eyes narrowing as the plot hatched, then the paranoid looking-around to make sure there was no one watching as I removed all the cash from the ATM and stuffed it into my shoulder bag. It would make a good comedy routine.

The man in the video would little resemble the passport photo during the subsequent investigation, interrogation, and imprisonment, probably involving lower echelon members of the US diplomatic staff.

I can just see the guy taking the call...“Did what? Broke into an ATM machine as a sign from God?”…and there would be a mountain of explaining to do, not to mention the paperwork. Who knows when I would see the light of day. I would probably miss the sun dance.

Better to sometimes follow your initial instincts. One of the people in the bank told me I would gain enormous merit for my deed, and told me to have a lucky day. As I left, I glanced down at the withdrawal receipt, smiled, folded it, and placed it in my wallet.

The ‘key man’, or whomever, for his negligence, would no doubt receive an ass-chewing, a loss of face in public, or a major embarrassment at the very least, leaving me only to speculate if I would receive his thanks or curses.


Lao Fowl

This morning the roosters here say, ‘Cock-a-dooder-doo.’


For A Small Child

They gave me a bicycle upon which it was meant to cruise around town. The bikes here are all the old French style from the 1920s; the thin, sit upright, basket and jingle bell on the handlebar style like you see in France, Belgium, Amsterdam, and England, with everyone upright and proper, with a proper seat, although the trekking groups have mountain bikes.

You think I could get one of those? Not a chance. They are ten dollars a day, although you could find a better deal. The other kind, they’ll give you for free. Unfortunately, they are not built for Americans or anybody over five feet tall.

“Go head.”

Even though I knew I couldn’t ride it already, I got on the thing and it felt like the handlebars were about six inches apart and way down there, with my knees up around my ears, trying to pedal the damn thing. It felt like a child’s toy, an itty bitty Christmas present toy for a pre-schooler, something you would see a clown riding around on in a circus ring.

“You got training wheels come with this?”

For some strange reason, a Frenchman with a scarf can look perfectly normal riding such a bike, but an American looks absolutely ridiculous, even with the seat all the way up.


Lao Foul

On the court, when they jump to try to block your shot, they hit you in the chest.


Monk Can Watch DVD

Can you imagine renouncing the world? All my saffron-robed friends over at the temple have. Can you imagine never having that beer, that delightful weekend, that piece of ass, and getting laid ever thereafter, never having danced or played any sport, giving up everything sensual and of the flesh, including most of your favorite foods? I’ll have to ask if those guys have to renounce the appreciation of art.

That is the internal and cerebral life they live over at the temple, although Olay asked me to bring Rambo IV tomorrow, if I could. There are phrases we use in practice:

‘Can the monK haVE music?’

‘Yes, monks can haVE music.’

‘The monk can watCH DEE VEE DEEs.’

‘The monk cannoTTT watCH woman.’

At the end of class, they’re starting to say, ‘See you llrater.’

Of course, they don’t renounce art. Their temples are full of it. Can you imagine renouncing the world? Can you imagine not having lived the life you’ve lived? Maybe you can. It would probably require being born in another place and time, under different stars.


I wonder what draws people to this place, Laos in general, but to this particular spot, this wall, in particular.

There are few who come here to this small wooded area for the sunset, like Bochol with dual citizenship from Oman and somewhere else, he said, although I suspected he was from somewhere else originally, like the west, faking the Arabian Peninsula style. He stuck out here; and Fiona from Ireland, the two of them toting a couple big Beer Laos. We talked for just a little while.

Fiona was an elementary teacher from Canada who was taking a year off, and stayed quiet, Bochol, a scientist, he said, a whale-watcher, I gathered from what he said about whales, had pretty much been everywhere and done everything. And knew everything, too, for a guy in his late twenties. Even gave me an unsolicited photography lesson. Those kind of people are hard to find. You may know some, too, like, ‘Can I…hang out…with you, dude?’

I’m just poking a little fun here. He was an okay guy. You know what I mean.


The guy who owns the cow that was tethered to a tree, came and got it, and some photographers appeared down below on the river to shoot the sunset. Another group of Lao stood at the water’s edge while one of the women stepped out into the river, squatted and relieved herself, with the men, maybe family, standing around looking pretty relaxed.

I asked a Thai friend one time about the little hoses in all the toilets throughout SE Asia, and learned they are for washing one’s self afterward, which I already knew. Upon further inquiry, I learned that you then dry yourself with a little shake and dance, and leave it go at that.

“What do you use?” she asked.

“We use toilet paper.” I said.

“DRY paper???” she asked, incredulously.

Down on the right, up top here where there are bushes, and Lao men come over here to relieve themselves, facilitated by enormous washed out tree roots running laterally and forming perfect sitting areas.

Kids come here to get coconuts and those little sour apples, and motorbike riders will pull over here to pee and use their cell phones. People seem to be too busy to sit here and watch the river go by or catch the sunset.

Not everybody is ‘on holiday’, I know. Neither am I. I’m working right now. I’m working on a UXO story.

Deeper into the city, a dozen blocks from the river at the only place I thought to stop for dinner, a place down off the street with open deck seating over a green stagnant swamp, there was a woman at the far end folding napkins with her back to me, talking to herself and never noticed my arrival.

The smell and insect situation didn’t appear as appealing as the low lighting-over-the-water-dining promised from the street, so I departed abruptly and left without notice, not necessarily because I didn’t want to be discovered, which would have caused her to instantly leap from her seat, but rather because her conversation seemed so serious.


On the way home I strolled through a children’s nightly carnival in an open field with kiddie rides, huge inflated balloon slides, and games of chance, bumper cars, CD and trinket vendors, sweets, and music blaring with a loud bass boom, boom, boom, going on down toward the end. A place for kids.

Down on the end, dozens of older boys played soccer on three different fields, a huge open space. A lady passed by on a motorbike with her infant wearing a red elephant hat with the trunk turned upward.

On the cooler mornings you see mothers on motorbikes or carrying their little Lao infants wearing such headgear, cloth animal hats with little ears of pigs, bears, and rabbits, the kids as cute as buttons. I like to greet them in Lao and English, and welcome them to planet Earth.


* I keep calling it a ‘seawall’. Technically, it’s not a sea wall. It’s a floodwall, a low, stone wall with a nice concrete cap for sitting, tree-lined and full of restaurants across from guesthouses, already told you, running the full length of Luang Prabang, along both the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.

First, people said the river never rose to the seawall, but then on another day, some guys told me it rose right up to the wall, and down on the north end of town, the Nam Khan flooded main street.


From The Foot of Phousi

The Nam Khan is quieter than here on the strip, the main street, running parallel and two blocks up from the river, but not much. You could probably check it out on Google Earth.

There is still open space over on the south end of town, whereas here, everything is already eaten up in a solid mass of temple grounds, private wooden traditional Lao style homes, French colonial private homes and government buildings, Lao traditional handicraft shops, travel agents, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses, and more shops.

That’s what makes up this place, or any tourist destination. The people..the land…the feel of the place.

Today I told the young French coffeeshop owner, the guy with the wifi, “Your friend…the guy who works here said, ‘It’s a challenge to stay in Luang Prabang.”

He laughed and replied, “It’s a challenge to leave Luang Prabang.”

I’m sitting high above the street on an elevated neglected brick-lined…whaddaycallit?..courtyard…at the base of Mt. Phousi, twenty steps above the street, right across from a temple and the national museum. There is a low concrete flower pot holding just dirt, running the length of wall here, sloping steeply to an eight- foot wall running the length of a city block.

The Phousi Temple is at the top, three hundred more steps. I think I told you five hundred, earlier. Sorry. There are monks living higher up on the…it FEELS like five hundred…monks living higher up on the grounds, and vendors selling flowers, incense, and caged birds to the relatively few tourists willing to make the climb.

The grounds here are huge. It’s a mountain. The next street to the east is way the hell over on the other side of town. It’s like that at all the temples. Back in the day, when they were built, they claimed huge land space, and being the ancient imperial capital, you’ve got the palace, now the national museum just across the street, and the whole city that grew up around their king, temples, and schools.

At night, the street below is lined on both sides with vendors, but now, there is daytime traffic, and up here, those three girls, ten years old, WOULD NOT leave until I made a purchase from all three of them.

Trinkets, key chains and bracelets. In general, you can get a better deal from the kids, who will sell at no profit, just to make the sale. If you bargain hard enough, you can discover what they paid for it, despite them telling you they’re giving you this price because you are you.

Then there’s the profit margin. Then there is the ‘going rate’. Then there’s the ‘farang rate,’ as opposed to the Lao rate. Then there’s the sucker, and the ‘I’m-taking-the-rest-of-the-day-off’ rate.

Olay, walking home from school with his buddies, stopped when I greeted him, came up the steps, and made arrangements for class time this afternoon, convincing me we need to work on ‘R’s today; and these four kids right now, two boys and two girls, little kids, asking for a cookie. They speak no English whatsoever and descend over the wall, sliding back down to the street and their two mothers, all 'street people,' all of them looking pretty poor.

Then there’s this crazy guy, and Digger and Bryan know who I’m talking about, the guy who’ll just stand in from of you with both hands open, nodding and smiling, and just refuses to leave, making a ‘C’mon…c’mon,’ motion with his hands.

He went down the street earlier, wearing a coolie hat and a dirty pakama, a man’s wrap-around skirt, and flip flops, carrying a sledge hammer and occasionally striking the street. He stopped on the corner, grabbed himself and masturbated for of a couple women tourists passing by, then went on down the street.

A short while later, he returned with a couple of short scythe blades, from the knife lady down there on the corner, making horizontal chopping motions like beetle pinchers as he went up the block, begging from anyone who would meet his gaze or inadvertently encounter him by chance during their walk.

Two days ago he was wearing brand new fatigue pants, a new green shirt, and green pith helmet. Another day, a green trench coat and a white construction hat. After seeing the same behavior over several years, it appears it’s not an act. I’m confident in saying he’s clinically mad.

There are many couples here, young and old alike, many of them carrying guide books and maps, staying a few days.

What did the guy, Bochol, say? “Yeahhh, man. I’m moving around the region. Thought I’d swing through El Pee Gee (‘LPG’, Air America, CIA, and ultracool traveler code for Luang Prabang) for a few days.”


Later To Be Known As Ham

My God! Some people, a goat and a pig off-loaded from a long houseboat, and were led down the riverbank, up the trail to the street, and down the street to the restaurants, where they will soon no doubt meet their end.

The pig, being prodded, was protesting mightily every step of the way, just scaaa-reaming, like, ‘They’re killing me! They’re killing me!’ pitching a pure bitch, and making everybody look. Not a tantrum, no. This was pure, all-out SCREAMING. I can still hear him, and they’re two blocks away. I’ll bet they cut his throat as soon as they get there.

Gleaming through a bank of scattered clouds, the sun slips behind a crest in the far mountain. A half dozen men play soccer down at the shallow shore, their bamboo goal posts stuck in the sand.

Far upriver on the opposite shore, the ferry has let off a group of people, making their way up the ramp and street to a small village, mostly hidden by jungle. The pig is still screaming. Out on the shaded river, a solitary fisherman floats with the slow shore current in his small boat.