tripwires and powder-kegs: how to make friends and then alienate them

Posted: April 4, 2010 in travel
Tags: , , , ,

Sabai Dee,

I got the hell out of BKK with a swiftness. The protests you may or may not have been hearing about are perfectly safe, even inviting demonstrations (it’s kind of complicated — you can read up on them here) and I ran into them on my last day in town, cruising the Skytrain. About a hundred thousand people lumbered up Sukhumwit road, honking and waving and smiling and yelling and singing. Basically, they just want a fair election and a more openly governed state, or, according to some, simply the reinstatement of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister (though not all support him, and there are huge paper trails of his own corruption as well)

In Luang Prabang, I found myself in some very interesting situations. I took the slow-boat in from the Lao/Thai boarder, which cruises down the Mekong from Huy Xai and Pak Beng, winding up in LPB. You meet a lot of people on this boat, because.. well, it’s a boat, and being stuck on any vessel that serves beer for two days is a guaranteed way to meet everyone. By the time we got into town, a multi-national posse had formed, the kind of people who start drinking at 11am because there’s nothing to do but drink and play Rummy 500.

I had been here 2 years earlier (almost to the day, actually) and simply loved the place — it’s where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan river, there are 30-some Buddhist Wats to visit, and generally fantastic food and friendly locals. After Dalat, it’s probably my favorite spot in SE Asia thus far. But it seems to have changed a bit… or maybe it’s just me that’s changed. At any rate, I found an atmosphere different than what I remembered from ’08 — many, many more tuk tuk drivers, all offering weed and opium, or to take you to the bowling alley, the only bar you can drink in after curfew (11:30). On the 3-block walk back from the posse-designated bar (they were there almost every day) to my guesthouse (posse went bowling — I wanted sleep), I had maybe 9 offers to drive me to the bowling alley and 6 offers for drugs. Don’t get me wrong — I like bowling and drugs as much as the next guy, but this ain’t Thailand, nor is it Veng Vieng — it’s one of the holiest places in Laos (32 Wats don’t just spring up overnight, ya know?). Finally I badger one of the tuk-tuk drivers after he offers “Bowling?”

“What is this bowling alley I keep hearing about? Is it new?”
“Only place open until 3 am. Many farang, many locals.”
“I was here 2 years ago and never heard about it…”
“It’s been here 4 years I think. Only farang for the last year or so”
“How can it be open till 3am? What about the curfew”
He smiles at this. “Very far… far from old quarter. No wats around.”

Over the next few days I heard the question “Dude, what’s with this curfew? It’s such bullshit!” about a thousand times.. I tried to explain it with a mix of basic facts and light sarcasm, designed to instill at least a vague sense of humility:

“Well, you’re not on Koh Samui anymore. LPB in particular is one of the holiest places in Laos… about 70% of the population here is Theravada Buddhist, and most youths are expected to enter Sangha at some point before they are 20, which is like the monastic order. The Wats here all have ‘monasteries’ for monks in training. The monks wake up at dawn to collect alms from the locals, which is how they eat.” (I neglected to mention that most of these monks have cell phones fancier than the one I use at home, and many Wats have A/V systems and such) “The basic idea of the curfew is to get the tourists to shut the hell up at a reasonable hour so people can wake up and give alms. This is all in the guidebook, by the way…”

On my first morning there, I mostly just wanted to find my friend Clara. I had her number but it didn’t work on skype, so I went to get a cup of tea, catch up on some correspondence, and send some more resumes out. I had been sitting there for a while when a local woman who was meandering about the garden walked up and asked “what do you do when you have problems?”

Well there’s a helluva question! “Try to solve them. Or ignore them, I suppose.”

We chatted for a little while, and after five minutes of lopsided conversation, I sigh, shut the laptop, and invited her to sit down. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Nan. To make a long story short, it turns out she owned the joint, and after listening to quite the sob story about her past husbands and ex-boyfriends (culminating with her previous American boyfriend’s suicide), she offered me a room in their guesthouse for free. I declined, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall — it was obvious she wasn’t looking for sexual favors or anything, but she seemed abrasive and bossy to her staff… probably a hard person to be friends with, possibly explaining my somewhat random installation as a farang confidant. Plus, from the stories, this woman had issues, not the least of which related to attachment. Also, the guesthouse was WAY too nice for me — I think rooms rent for $45 per night, which is about ten times more expensive than the average guesthouse I stay in here. But she wound up basically insisting that I stay for a night or two, as a way of thanking me for my time and advice (advice? what advice?), “until you find your friend”. I hesitantly accepted… I mean, what’s she gonna do when I leave? Stalk me?

I found Clara that day. We met at the posse’s bar for drinks and caught up — it was great to see her. Ironically, it turns out our travel plans are not so similar for the time being, and she’s going to go to Vietnam for a bit while I tour around Northern Laos, an area I didn’t really get to see my last time here but have heard fantastic things about.

I went to drop off my stuff at my free room and found Nan there, washing her car, which I thought was a tad odd given it was 11pm or so. She chided me about my friend, who she kept insisting was my girlfriend, and while I’m not sure what her actual social intentions were, I chalked it up to phantom empathy. “Your girlfriend no love you no more! It’s okay, we go get drunk now.” Ugh…

You may already be wondering by this point why I was tolerating her chiding, her behavior, her lopsided friendship mentality. I think in a way I simply felt sorry for her, but in another way, I was kind of just hoping to hang out with more locals, and the ‘posse mentality’ of my shipmates, nice as it was, was feeling a little fabricated. You see a lot of this particular social construct while traveling over here — I won’t say it’s necessarily an aversion to meeting locals, and I’m certainly not Holier Than Thou (as this story will illustrate) but Westerners tend to hang out with Westerners, myself included. This is nothing against our character — all the people I met in that posse are fantastic people… but I was looking for something different, something new.

We went to the bowling alley. It wasn’t that bad. She introduced me to a score of other locals, which I was happy to see. At one point a group of guys walked up and greeted her — she introduced me as her friend, and said “That one used to be my manager [we’ll call him Sam]. He owns farang bars here. He gay, all his employees gay.” It clearly wasn’t mentioned as derogatory, but simply a statement of fact. They invited us to his bar. “We’ll be there drinking all night — come by.”

We went to his bar, a place I’d actually been to two years ago, and a popular joint for westerners and Lao alike. It was, obviously, closed, and having a westerner in your place after curfew can be a big deal — not just fines, you can lose your business license, although more than likely the cop will just take a bribe. They were drinking BeerLao and playing the most ridiculous drinking game I’d ever seen — a playing card is flipped face-up in front of each person at the table, and if it’s 10 or higher, you drink your whole beer. 9 or lower, you just drink. At one point I notice a bottle of Jameson on the wall, and point to the bottle, giving a thumbs up, and Sam just pulls the damn bottle off the wall and hands it to me. “Here you go! What you want with it? Coke?” I tell him I can’t really afford to be drinking Jameson, and he just smiles and says “I don’t give a shit about money. Enjoy yourself.”

We were having a great time, but at some point the night suddenly took quite a turn — somehow, Nan’s ex-boyfriend came up in conversation (the suicide) and Sam says, very matter-of-factly, “He’s not dead. My friend saw him recently. He’s fine.” Huh. Nan had gone pretty in-depth with this particular situation, and was shocked. “American embassy call me two weeks ago! I even call his family!” Sam was pretty confident that the rumors were false (or true, depending on the rumor) — the guy is alive and doing fine. Strange vibes float about the table, mostly shrugs, but suddenly Nan starts drinking much more heavily — she pours herself a whiskey, easily three or four fingers, and just drains the whole thing in one gulp. The rest of the table glances at each other with wide eyes — it seems they’ve seen this behavior before. Not a good sign. Not long afterwards, she’s getting into her car, dead drunk, and I’ve got my hand on the shifter, preventing her from getting out of ‘Park’ while trying to talk her out of the car. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and the situation is looking pretty dark. It ends with her literally kicking me out of the door, into the street, shifting into ‘drive’ and just flooring it down the street, door still open, flapping shut… face-palm. Sam runs out, half-laughing, half-gasping. I made my way back to the guesthouse to catch Nan being dragged up to her room by her son (who happens to be the night clerk) who’s apologizing for her actions. I shrug… and get some sleep.

The next day I tried to arrange the future in my head, and really, I should have just checked out and disappeared… but I didn’t. I felt really bad for Nan and wanted to give her some kind of comfort, some kind of closure to it all, explain that she needs to let go of the past and focus on the now. I met up with Clara and her friend again and we chatted for a few hours, giving me time to explain the night to them.

“So what are you going to do?”
“Change guesthouses. Tell her to chill out, try to get her to look at things a bit differently without getting so attached to the past. Or maybe just bolt.”

I went back to the guesthouse around 4pm but Nan was still not up, according to her son. I start packing. About 2 hours later one of her managers comes up to my room.

“Nan wants to see you. She’s very angry — just be calm with her and talk slowly” (he must have said “talk slowly” about three or four times)

The conversation was pretty boring; I tried to give advice but she wasn’t having it — she kept saying I was too young, that I couldn’t understand. I told her I was checking out, going to another guesthouse, then up the river to Nong Khiaw to chill out for a bit. She chided me constantly, insulting my friend Clara some more and insisting I was in love and was brokenhearted, “like me! That’s why you leave!” I rolled my eyes a lot. She insisted on taking me out to dinner to a local place, Laotian barbecue, where they set the grill up in the middle of the table and you cook the stuff yourself, with a little canal at the bottom of the grill for making soup. It’s kind of like hot-pot in China, except it’s actually delicious. Another sob-fest. I think while chewing my guilty, almost quid-pro-quo meal: you came here to meet locals, and here we are: you met one. She’s depressed and maybe a bit of a sociopath, and if she weren’t paying for your lodging and food, maybe you’d just ignore her. This isn’t you. You don’t act this way and you don’t need her charity and you’re probably taking advantage of her as much as she is you. Good work, you bastard… At some point, I mentioned that I grew up pretty lower-class with a single mother, which opens her up even more — she raised four kids by herself. When we get up to leave, a swarm of children descend on the table, just sprint to it, and start stuffing the leftovers into bags, literally grabbing the meat off the grill with their bare hands, all of them sharing the bounty, working fast before the manager walks over to shoo them away. Heart-wrenching stuff… I may have grown up poor, but we were never hungry — I love my mother and she did the absolute best she could and under the circumstances she was a goddamn knock-out. Thanks, mom… thanks for not being like Nan, at any rate.

I say I’m going to meet some friends at the posse’s bar. She asks if she can come along. The imprint of the car incident from the night before is still fresh on my brain and the writing on the wall is suddenly in bold, but for some reason I can’t say no — maybe I’m too nice, maybe she’s too lonely. I say “sure, let’s find you a boyfriend, a new farang for you. Just don’t drink so much.”

Second verse, same song. The posse is wondering why I’m bringing a Laotian woman the same age as my mother into the bar… I make the somewhat awkward introductions and my Argentinian friend Nico keeps her company for a while — hey, there’s a good strategy! Introduce them to the craziest local you’ve found… that’ll open ’em up a bit. She goes over to Sam’s place after a bit (presumably to pester him more about the suicide thing) and I stick around and hang out with Clara, her friend and the posse. After what I feel is a safe period (a few hours), I tell Clara and her friend that they should meet Sam. We walk over and there she is, half-drunk. I can see that Clara and her friend feel a bit awkward and after my descriptions of her and her behavior they’d have every right to bolt for the door, but they’re handling it like champs, given the situation. Sam gets the bottle of Jamo and I’m shocked, absolutely shocked to see how little is left in this bottle that was full the night before. We kill it. Clara and company excuse themselves after a while and it’s just Nan, Sam, myself and some of Sam’s staff sitting around drinking. Nan is getting drunk again and chiding me constantly, again in a rather insulting tone. I take off in a bit of an “I’m done with this shit” way, thanking everyone for their hospitality. Then the calls start coming…

I don’t even know why I have a cell phone over here… I guess because it’s cheap and it’s nice to keep in touch with people in a more organized way than just random sightings. Three calls come from Nan and I turn the phone off. Sam rides up on his motorbike a block from the guesthouse, asking what’s wrong. “Nothing, man, I’m just done taking shit from her. I’m leaving tomorrow.” Nan rides past, on the back of her manager’s bike and we exchange somewhat icy stares. I tell Sam I’ll call him tomorrow.

When I wake up, there’s a note under my door. It basically says “thanks for everything, you are a good friend, but I don’t think I ever want to see you again.” Well shit! I can deal with that! I pack up my stuff and lumber downstairs. She’s in the lobby, arranging flowers.

“Where are you going? Why you check out?”
A puzzled expression comes on my face. I show her the note, which she studies carefully, almost as if it were completely foreign to her.
“I’m leaving. Thank you for everything, but I don’t think I can be the kind of friend you need, and your kindness seems mixed with bitterness. I don’t want to accept your charity because it’s unfair I’m leaving tomorrow for Nong Khiaw.”

“No, you stay here… we’ll go see my resort today. I’ll show you the flower farm.” (she’s enthralled with the fact that I used to help run a flower shop.)
“No, I think I really want to be alone today… I thank you again for your kindness, but I’m going to check out. I’m even happy to pay for the room if you like; I’m not sure what you were expecting, but I see that the gesture wasn’t entirely earnest.”

This was a poor choice of words, as I have to explain what ‘gesture’ and ‘earnest’ mean, compounding the awkwardness of the entire sentence as I break it down. All this time she’s still chopping and arranging, chopping and arranging…

random useless fact I learned later that night: the Lao word for “chop” sounds just like “fuck”, as does the word for “pumpkin”… at Sam’s place, for Christmas they give out free pumpkin desert, which means everyone can go around saying “free fuck! free fuck!”.

aren’t you glad we had this little interlude in the story?

I say to her “I’ll come by tomorrow morning — we’ll have breakfast or something before I leave.” I’m trying to be an adult here — ya know, give her some closure while still backing away quietly from the woman with the knife in her teeth. She responds with “I never want to see you again.” Okay. No problem. “Thanks for everything.”

I walk down to the river. Why do I feel guilty? I didn’t do anything… my only crime is that I’m too damn kind. Sure, I might have stretched the limits of said kindness by accepting her generosity, but I wasn’t expecting what followed… I check into some flea-bag guesthouse and meet up with Clara for a walk. At 4pm or so Sam calls and says we’re getting massages. Lao massage is basically the best thing ever, and my back is in sad shape after that boat ride, so I’m not complaining, even though he goes to a spa where it’s over twice as expensive as most places in Old Quarter, even after his discount — I walked out 70,000 kip poorer but in fantastic shape. Sam even offers to let me use one of his motorbikes and stay at his house, but I’m pretty apprehensive at this point on that particular form of charity. Nan calls at about 5pm. I don’t answer. Clearly, I need to put the last nail into the coffin, drive home that closure forever. I write a short letter thanking her again for her kindness but confronting her on the fact that in only two days, she’d succeeded in treating me more like a pet than a friend and that her conniving, know-it-all attitude is perhaps the reason she has trouble making friends. Oh yeah, and that the words “I never want to see you again” are pretty clearly interpreted and generally not taken lightly. I drop off the note, put it in her hand, and when she tries to get me to sit down, I explain I’m in a rush and will stop by one last time before I get on the boat. It seems some small closure to the situation is at hand.

Sam and I grab dinner later with another mutual friend of his and Nan’s, a woman named Peng who I’ve hung out with before. I explain everything that happened. They agree that Nan’s “kind of crazy” and apparently has a thing for latching onto farang. It’s also mentioned that if I hadn’t met Nan, I never would have met them… so there’s that. We clink drinks.

…And the calls start coming. Five. 10. 20. 25 in the first half-hour. Holy shit, I have a Laotian stalker! I told her I’d stop by but it seems a poor choice in this light… “Change your SIM and get a new number”, says Peng. “Yeah! Good idea! I’ll do that in the morning…” Sam pulls his phone out and makes a brief call, and 5 minutes later a guy walks up and hands me a stack of SIM cards as thick as a phone book. “Pick a number.” I feel like I’m in the mafia or something. New number, crisis averted…

I didn’t wind up leaving the next day, or even the day after that. Mostly, I wanted to spend more time with Clara and Sam, both of whom are truly good friends and who I might not see again for a long time. LPB is small enough that Nan ha some idea of how much time I was spending with Sam, and then it happened: she somehow got a hold of my new number. She calls from some number that isn’t hers and I stupidly pick up. She starts screaming, yelling that I’m gay and Sam is my boyfriend and I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward and all sorts of other shit. I hang up and turn the phone off. Let her think whatever she wants; it makes no difference because it’ll all be distorted anyway. There is no closure for her in anything — it’s part of why she focuses with tunnel-vision about the past and latches on to pain so much…

Terrible vibes, Fear and Loathing... In a way, maybe Nan is kind of right: I acted like a bit of a coward in the face of someone in pain (someone rather crazy, but still) because the circumstances were too convoluted and frustrating for me to see any other way to act. I am ashamed of myself in a certain way for even accepting her ‘kindness’, but hey, hindsight is 20/20. For a while I was not going to send or publish this story but simply write it down… but I think if there’s any way to bring a somewhat selfish closure for myself to my own sad, stupid choices, it’s by sharing this with others — tell me what you’d have done.

Keep your chin up. Go with your gut. Be true to yourself and speak that truth, even if you’re not heard. And for chrissakes, be a better judge of character than I was.

I’m going North. Gonna dry out for a while. Too much booze, too many cigarettes, a lot of strange happenings… time to slow down and sip some tea, do some trekking, see Laos in a more organic light. Sam says I should come back to LPB for my birthday next week. I’m somewhat apprehensive but equally tempted. He’s a great guy and makes me wish I was in to boys. Seriously — they would eat this guy alive in Madison (a fact that I told him warrants a visit — “drinks are on me”).

I spoke the truth, but they didn’t understand me, because not many people speak that language…

~ some random graffiti artist / poet whose name I can’t recall, and whose advice I tried to heed, failingly…



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