Posts Tagged ‘karma’

While searching for flights to Sri Lanka, I noticed that many of them route through incredibly petro-dollar-rich Middle Eastern countries. This is really just a coincidence (most Mid East airlines service both Asia and the East Coast), but as I’ve not spent any time whatsoever in the Middle East, it caught my eye and my interest. I started reading up on Bahrain, a common stopover and the hub for Gulf Air, whom I noticed generally had the cheapest one-way fares out…

Anyway, Bahrain seemed, from what I read, something like the Dublin of the Middle East… wedged between the UAE and Qatar, on an island just 385 sq/mi, it is not a dry country, like its neighbors, and the place seems rife with at least three things: bars/clubs, casinos, and American troops (something like 2,300 stationed, though a man I met there told me at any given time there are 15,000 to 20,000 there). This, admittedly, fascinated me, and after putting at least six minutes of thought towards it, I paid an extra $10 to have a 15-hour overnight layover there, as opposed to a six-hour daytime stopover at Heathrow. I sort of immediately regretted this decision, as it ment that my itinerary bumped from an eyebrow raising 32 hours to a head-shaking 39, but once you hit that button, you can’t un-hit it, and letting the chips fall where they may is a wonderous cornerstone of “don’t think” travel…

up in the clouds: a small diversion

Boarding the plane dead-last (I always do this) the kind, five-foot-nothing French flight attendant asked if I would relinquish my bulkhead seat to, and I quote, “someone in need”.  I said something like, “sure… but can you seat me in exit row or something? I really.. umm.. like leg room…”
Her neck was craning up pretty damn hard to look at me. She glanced to my right for just a moment, and said, “You will like your seat…”

I was bumped to first class once before, on a flight from Schiphol to Philly, but I honestly didn’t remember what it was like… hot towels all around, and at this point, the nice French lady asked my name, as with all the other passengers (they learn everyone’s’ name, which seems insane until you realize there are three attendants for something like 16 seats). She was pleasantly surprised when I asked for hers in return. “It’s Linda”, she said with another smile. Shortly afterwards, a selection of newspapers that is staggering (I really don’t read the Financial Times enough). The seat itself seems to be what most people are paying for: it takes up the length of at least two coach seats, and reclines into last week.

What was possibly more interesting than how plush it is was how demanding the other passengers there were… the sixty-something Frenchman seated next to me was flabbergasted, absolutely shocked that there was no French wine available, which made me chuckle in between heaping bites of seared salmon and saffron risotto. He settled for something Chilean and kept going through property leaflets and designer magazines. I asked if he was shopping for a house. “Yes, I’d like to buy something in Manhattan… I am sick of my co-op.” I nodded pensively, considering how many people I know who would literally kill to live in a Manhattan co-op.

Most people wouldn’t eat the food, which was shocking to me, as it was amazingly good. Many complained, about everything from the food to the wine to the movie selection. I have a friend who works as a flight attendant in the Middle East, and she calls first class “The ICU”. This makes sense to me now.

Much later in the evening, I walked up to the front to stretch my legs, and Linda hopped up immediately, asking if I needed anything. “No, it’s fine, just stretching… I can’t sleep.” It was clear that she was really happy to see little old me in first class, and all of my sheepish demands must have been transparently earnest to her. “I am glad I got to seat you there”, she said. “None of the other bulkhead passengers would give up their seat.” I asked who she needed it for. “A mother, and her child. The child is sick and they need to be close to the lavatory.”

“Wait, you mean I got a bump to first class, but all the people who refused are sitting next to a sick infant right now?”

Another huge smile from Linda. I used to not believe in Karma. Now I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t…

Bahrain: yet another story with no protagonists and no victors

The visa process sucked: it’s on arrival, for 15 days, but the official seemed to think the airline would give me a transit visa for free (this would have been nice) as my layover was almost 16 hours. At the desk, though, they had no love for me: “You can just stay in the airport; if you want to leave the airport, you will have to buy the tourist visa.” This was harsh, as the visa costs 5 dinar, which is $15 — a dollar per hour. You’ve come this far… just pay the damn fee…

I met a nice french girl who was scared and alone in the line. She was supposed to be on a plane to Chennai but her connection was late, and she had to spend a night in Bahrain. This ment she got her visa paid for by the (my) airline, and a free hotel room. I waited for her on the other side of Immigration out of courtesy, but when the officer saw me sit down here, he got downright hostile.

“Why are you still here? You need to go!”
“I’m… umm… waiting for my friend over there…”
“Wait somewhere else!”

Damn! That is some cold shit… why are there chairs there? I exited and waited for her outside immigration. She was clearly not comfortable by herself here and I wanted to try to change that. We talked for a while about India: she was on her way to do a homestay for three months. I asked if she’d ever been to India before. “No… just around Europe.” I smiled. “You’re going to love it.” She needed to hear it…

A shuttle came for her and I asked where it was going. Golden Tulip Hotel.  I hitched a ride, but as we pulled up, I immediately knew I would not be getting a room here. My first hint was the fountain out front, which is roughly the size of the house I grew up in. Then inside, an ocean of marble and brass. I inquired about a room, but mainly to avoid paying for the shuttle; hell, I had just slept for eight hours (on the second flight, full of salmon and white russians from the first), and back home the sun was coming up. He showed me two rooms, one of which reeked of formaldehyde (fresh carpet?) and one which was stunning, 12th floor, view of the whole city. The best rate he could offer was something like $150US/night. He answered a phone call, the perfect diversion… “I’ll be in the bar”, I motioned, pointing towards the lounge…

It looked like any other hotel bar on earth, but with a hell of a lot of sheiks in it for 10pm on a Tuesday. One is not to be confused by the holier-than-thou dress of men wearing pressed white suits of linen and checkered turbans…. no, they can in fact put down Glenfiddich and Marlboro Reds with the best of us. None of them are seated alone. There is another western couple in the bar, but they seem rather occupied. The bartender is female, asian (her features look Indonesian) and skinny as a rail. She’s wearing what looks more like a schoolgirl costume than a uniform, a very short skirt but not otherwise particularly revealing. The beer selection is quite wide but rather homogenous as well (think InBev’s major western catalogue) and I order a Smithwicks. I pronounce it ‘smitt-icks’ as they do in Ireland, and this garners a funny look.

I am at a complete loss as to what to do… I paid 5 dinar to leave the airport, only to discover I can’t really afford anything else… “No, sir, I cannot afford your beds here, but I can afford your beer….. and that’s sort of the same thing.” I pull the laptop out and start writing. I need a map…

Cold feet are temporary, sure, but this place sure feels weird… I only have the familiar to grasp, a smitt-icks in this case. My own detest of planning occasionally backfires… sure, sometimes all the benevolence and spontaneity and serendipity in the world falls at your feet, but sometimes you’re just standing there, alone, the tourists walking past with North Face jackets and cameras hanging where their necktie usually goes, or maybe the sheiks and locals eyeballing, or ignoring, or valets and drivers holding signs that will never bear my name. I’m not scared, or worried, or even lonely…. just… lost. Again. I know I can’t sit here all night, and I can easily just get up and start walking around, but damn, it’s day one, and it sure feels like it in my head…

There’s a blond woman there too, a Brit, the house pianist/singer, and the sheiks won’t clap at the end of her songs. I’m the only one. At one point she plays “Hey Jude” and it’s really wonderful, and there I was, chainsmoking Marlboros and punching this nonsense on my laptop, and I’m the only one clapping. Rough crowd.
Eventually she takes a break and walks over. “Mind if I sit?” We introduce ourselves and chat (she must have known already how much I don’t fit in here), and at some point I tell her the story of how I got to the hotel, and ditching the front desk guy at the phone call, which she finds quite funny.

“Well I’m going out with some friends later to see this really great band… do you wanna come along?”
“Yeah, sounds good…”

Again, how can you not believe in Karma? It’s right in front of your face…

We chat a bit more; she’s quite the traveler, and has been able to support herself though her music since she was 20. Very cool. I ask a ton of questions about the places she’s been, and how she wound up in Bahrain.

She finishes her gig (the bar here closes at 11) and we hit the club where the show is. No charge for the taxi, or to get in the door — she seems very well-liked. The band is called Evolver (I can only find their FB page — it’s here if you want to check them out) and it’s huge; several vocalists, guitar/bass/drums, a keyboard player, and a DJ. They’re already playing, and it sounds pretty awesome. The style is all over the place, waving from hip hop to reggae to rock, but it all flows well and the band plays very tightly… the crowd is probably 60% expats, many Americans, other Europeans, and many scattered locals, all drinking together. At one point I go up to grab a beer and notice there’s a back room to the joint, with pool tables. I wander in. The room is entirely locals, and only Arabic is spoken. I sort of smile around and wave, but almost no one smiles back… hmm… no one here wants to talk to me.

I creep back to the main room and stop at the bar for a second. Two of the locals from the back room walk over and say hi. We chat. They’re both drinking pints of pinkish-red liquid, which I learn is sort of an Arabian version of a Long Island (Dead Sea Iced Tea? It has a nice ring to it…). At some point I ask why I seemed so ill-liked just a minute ago… one of the guys smiles and says, “just guys acting hard, think they’re tough.” All of them? I ask if there are a lot of issues with the American service guys here. “No, very rarely, but I think they assume you’re one of them.” One of them. I mean, the bar is covered in servicemen and locals, getting along just fine… there is clearly more to the dynamic here than my eyes can see but I don’t pry.

I wind up having a great time; the band is awesome, truly skilled, and all night, it’s clear they’ve played together for a long time. Good conversation and loud music. I like. The lights come on, bar still packed, and I realize it’s 2am already. “There’s no rush,” says one of the Navy guys I’ve been chatting with, “there is technically no curfew here; this place just shuts at 2am.” Check.
We shuffle outside eventually and say our goodbyes; the Brit left long ago to go watch movies with a friend, and I realize I’ve only really been hanging out with Americans for most of the night. Damn, I need to find some locals to kick it with… I am not the least bit tired and only mildly faded from the drinks (again, over-priced beer is a good way to keep the poor from getting drunk).

I start meandering about Bahrain at 2:30am on a Tuesday morning, my flight still eight hours away. The place is spread out, and sparsely built – everything seems to be built several lots away from anything else. Perhaps I’m in a young neighborhood. Eventually I find a spot that appears both local and hopping. It seems to be under a hotel, and the locals outside don’t seem to mind my presence there… when I get to the entrance inside, though, the woman working the door seems to feel differently. “It is only locals inside, all only Arabic”, to which I reply, “Great! That’s what I’m looking for!” She purses her lips at this response, not pleased by my enthusiasm… “You will not have a good time in there.” That is… pretty concrete.
“I’m not a serviceman here,” I explain, “I am just visiting Bahrain and want to hang out with the locals…” The music is very, very loud inside, a sort of Arabic house music, and she turns around, looking at the door for a second. This woman sure doesn’t want me to go in there…

I just go out and say it:
“Look, I really wanna check this place out. How much is the cover?” She glances around for a second and pauses. Not a good sign.
“Ten dinar,” she says. $30!?!?
“That is a huge amount of money. Clearly, you just don’t want me to go in there. Why not?”
“You will not have fun in there.”

Huh. Okay. I shake my head and walk out. Maybe she’s trying to protect me? Seems unlikely… I see the outside doorman again and tell him what happened. He smiles. “There’s an after-hours place over there, you should check it out.” I ask if it’s a local joint. “Many different people, locals too. In a hotel.” I thank him and start walking.

It’s a short walk. I enter a place with loud dance music, but a very small crowd. One table has an older white guy and a very young Arabic woman. Three locals are sitting at the bar. Downstairs is a table with three young women, dressed to kill. I immediately assume they are prostitutes based on the other scenery. Whatever, I’m here already… I walk up to the bar. The bartenders are very, very dark skinned, certainly not Arabic. They’ve got Jim Beam on the wall and I ask for one, rocks. “Double?”

“Yes please.”

He pours a conservative double and sets it in front of me. “Seven dinar”, he says. What the hell… that’s like $21… I complain at the cost. That’s more than a bottle costs back home! “After hours”, he says. He can’t exactly put it back. I put the money down and take very small sips. The locals at the bar are hammered and leave shortly after, leaving me, the old white guy, his companion for the night, and three other prostitutes. Total back-fire. I shoulda just walked into the other place.. just three dinar more to see if she was wrong…

I realize that nearly everyone I’ve seen working here is not local: the bartender back at the Tulip, the staff at the other bar, these guys… really, everyone in the service industry seems to be an immigrant. I ask the bartender where he’s from. “Bangladesh”, he says. I react positively to this, as I’m hoping to hit Bangladesh soon.  We chat about the recent events there and in Myanmar and the other bartender joins in the conversation, also Bangladeshi. I grill them for over an hour on their homeland, then ask questions about their work here, which they are reluctant to answer. They explain that work is very hard to find back home, and that it is much easier for them to provide for their families over here. They both have children, and I ask if they’re happy. They both smile at each other for a moment, and neither answer…

Eventually I leave, at about 4:30, thanking them for their company. I tip. They both shake my hand and I walk out. Six hours left to my flight… there’s really nothing else I can do here, and I feel stupid for even having come. What did you think would happen? You’d go out and party with the sheiks and the locals? In ten hours, all you’ve done is spend money and drink and fuck up the one shot you had at getting into real trouble… what have you learned?


I resort to a taxi to get back to the airport. I’m feeling stupid but still pretty intoxicated and therefore pretty jolly as I get out of it, to a crowd of porters, all smiling. They’re curious to know why I’ve arrived at the airport three or four hours before the first departure. We talk: they are all Nepalese, and most of them look like they’re teenagers; after asking, I learn the oldest is just 26. We chat for nearly an hour outside that airport; I’m full of questions about Nepal, they’re full of questions about the states. I’m getting used to this idea that any and all physical and service jobs are held by immigrants here, and my questions are getting more acute, mixed in with questions about their lives and families back home: How long are you here for? (one to three years) What are the hours like? (bad – 12 hour shifts six days a week) Are you happy? (answered again with smiles and an enthusiastic “Yes!” or two) And finally, what do you make, and is it enough?

This final question is answered with glances, and then one of the older kids pipes up with a truly honest response: “Not enough.” I offer the whole gang of them teas, which they refuse, and then immediately go inside and buy six cups of tea, which is a rather expensive thing to do at Manama International Airport. They are shocked when I walk out and hand them all out, and some of them hide them from sight or just slam them. Perhaps this is frowned upon by The Man. The gesture sure isn’t lost, though, and they all thank me… my head is full of questions, as usual…

Arriving in Sri Lanka, a nice British couple (freaks who travel: my kinda people) saved my crippled ass by knowing what the hell they were doing and where the hell they were going, and I split the taxi with them into the city (these fine folks will appear again on these pages soon). I spent my first hours on the net reading up on immigrant labor in the Middle East, and the cost of living, and the GDP growth and breakdown of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Some answers were surprising, to say the least.

42% of the population of the Bahrain are immigrants. The common immigration system, known throughout the Middle East as “Kafala”, is based on sponsorship, and many human rights campaigns liken it to slavery or indentured servitude, as workers’ passports are generally withheld by the sponsors, and it is very common for the wages to be paid directly to the sponsor, often shady third-party “travel agents” with bases in both countries (Bahrain became the first Mid-East country to technically repeal Kafala law in 2008, though most sources say the changes haven’t come yet). Most disturbing is the detention policies involved:

“Many migrants are detained on the grounds that they are unable to repay debts owed to sponsors. According to Bahraini legislation, “anyone sentenced to pay a fine may be imprisoned for up to one year to compel performance” (WGAD 2002, p. 26). Migrants are subject to deportation once they have served a sentence under this law, and are often detained—in some cases indefinitely—until they can be deported or repay their debts. In April 2007, the media reported that five Indians and one Pakistani had been detained for almost two years in the Asry Detention Centre, and were unable to be deported due to debts and civil cases brought against them (Bew 2007a).”

This is, by definition, indentured servitude, sponsored by the state, and it is used all over the Middle East. How I was completely ignorant of it is ridiculous. This is in a country that is very much state-sponsored and nearly colonized by the US…

The flip side of this coin is the coin itself: remittance is abound, and looking at some more GDP info (I love the CIA World Factbook), the numbers are amazing: in 24 countries, remittance makes up 10% or more of the GDP. Here in Sri Lanka, it is 8.9%. In Honduras, it is nearly 25%. It seems to be dropping worldwide by a few percent each year since 2009 or so, but the numbers are still huge (Time even has this nifty map of 2009 numbers, though it’s quite incomplete). So yeah. There’s that….

It happened… it can’t un-happen….

Northern Laos is a great place to dry out.

For starters, everything closes by about 10:30pm. Many smaller towns are isolated enough to only have electricity for a few hours each night, or maybe not at all, and warm beer is not an acceptable beverage when it’s 95 degrees out. To cinch it, most people come up here to do trekking, 1 to 3 day hikes, in which you stay in villages overnight… not the most conducive surroundings to drinking, although there is a lot of rice whiskey around, and the locals love feeding it to me, which of course I never refuse. You wouldn’t insult a host, would you?

After spending about a week meandering about and trekking around Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, and Luang Namtha, I met a really nice Canadian bloke names Ara who regaled me with tale of something called The Gibbon Experience. He was raving about it, talking about monkeys and tree houses and zip-lines and such. Basically, it’s a 3-day 2-night stay in a nature reserve in Bokeo province where they’ve built tree houses you stay in, only accessible via zip-line, that rest between 20 and 60 meters off the ground. The whole place takes you along paths built along several ridges, where zip-lines connect across valleys and from land to platforms to tree houses. I did some zip-line stuff in Costa Rica with some friends and it was tons of fun but kind of rushed along, pushing from platform to platform in a large group. At $250, this is probably the most expensive way you could possibly spend three days here (that amount is a very comfortable week or more in most places, and could buy you a six-day trek with home stays in Muang Sing) but Ara made a hell of a pitch — it was my birthday after all, and after his wide-eyed description of the place, I figured I’d splurge, try something new, or at least different — three straight days of zip-lines over the jungle sounded pretty unique…

dear diary: I seem to be ageing

A quick rant: 25 is a silly age. It’s silly because it seems somehow much older than 24 to a 24-year-old, like there’s this line in the sand, and after you cross that line, like bam, there’s half your mid-twenties, gone… now your age can be measured in quarter-centuries. It’s really nihilistic and dramatic in a way that makes you laugh. Oddly enough, two of the other people who Ara successfully pitched the tour to had their birthdays just before mine, that I got to share with them. Beth turned 26 on a bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Namtha that I was on, a pretty hellish bus ride even by Laotian standards (she thought it was funny that I was using the collapsed, mangled seats in front of me along with a sack of rice as an ottoman). I bought her a beer afterwards but we think a Frenchman stole it. Matt turned 23 the day before we went into the jungle, in Huy Xai. I won’t bore you all with the semantic ballyhoo in my head about how insignificant I feel about myself at this particular age… the more I know, the more I know how absolutely little I know, and while I’m not sure if that’s the age talking, I’ve honestly never been more clueless about my life or my future than I am right now, at this moment, sitting on this bus to Kunming in Yunnan, that smells so completely awful, of stale food, feet and vomit, that I’m actually thankful when the Chinese guys lying on both sides of me chain-smoke… you should see my smile right now. The Chinese guys must be wondering what the hell I’m writing to make me grin so much. I offered one of them an orange earlier. He refused, with what might be construed as a smile, then hacked up something deep from his gullet and spit on the floor of the bus between us. But I’m wandering here — more on that sort of thing later…

buy the ticket, take the ride

And so, another posse formed. Three random Brits, a French Canadian, an Aussie and myself went hiking into the forest on April sixth in search of Tree House #1. In the true spirit of travel (and, I should like to think, life), six strangers with seemingly nothing in common will all instantly become friends if simply given the opportunity. We went out with our guide, Nuon, who showed us the basics of zipping (the equipment here was a bit nicer than the stuff I’ve used before but with some interesting details) and then left us to ourselves. Our tree house was inhabited by a cat (we named it Bud) so as to kill mice and such, but Bud wasn’t interested in hunting the odd bugs that kept falling from the top of the tree house onto the lower level, near one of the beds. We thought they were maggots, as this logic played into the scenario of “perhaps there’s a dead bird up in the thatched roof” which seemed reasonable (cat + thatch roof = dead birds = maggots?). Matt and I swapped beds for the “bug bed” based initially on its size, not that it actually fit us any better, and we sealed off the mat with a mosquito-net like enclosure hanging from a branch. Seemed like a good fit. The very last thing to go through my head that night before drifting into a sweaty, buggy, noisy sleep was “Christ, please don’t let me wake up with maggots in my bed…”

…So at dawn, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I woke up 125 feet up in a tree, in the middle of the jungle in NW Laos, on a mat so worn down that it wouldn’t be used in a barrio in a bad neighborhood in East LA, with some toxic caterpillars sharing my pillow (although at the time I thought they were maggots or some such thing).

Still, for all the apprehension I felt about the money, and the caterpillars, and all the other less-than-awesome aspects of the trip, it was completely incredible and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. You’ll go out around six in the morning (and by “go out” I mean “strap on a harness and jump onto a zip-line that dangles above the ‘living room'”), looking for Gibbon monkeys who sing this amazing, almost synthetic sounding song, and you’ll just run as soon as you start hearing them, ’cause they only sing for eight or ten minutes before disappearing. We got lucky and saw them both mornings — they’re somewhat afraid of the ziplines (they vibrate the trees alot, not to mention the natural inclination to holler out like the Cisco Kid while you’re riding one) and pretty much hold to the canopy, so if you don’t really haul, you’ll miss them. Then in the afternoon, you’ll just go out, trekking and zipping, trekking and zipping… I’m sure it sounds like this would get old, but it just doesn’t. I swear. You’ll do it all day and then pop back to the tree house for lunch, and look around at everyone, and say “Wanna go back out?” and as soon as you hop back on the line it’s fuckin’ brand-new again. It’s really very independent in that you don’t need the guide to go zipping (which explains the huge release form you sign) and it’s just fantastic… and to top it all off, I never even got bitten by the caterpillars! Which is a very good thing, apparently, as one of the volunteers explained a bite can make your thumb swell to the size of the fist (they shrugged when I asked for the species’ name — can I get an entomologist, please?)

That night, half of the native guides and Drew, a volunteer from Green Bay, zipped into our tree house with our guide, Nuon, balancing a tray with my birthday surprise: a pumpkin, filled with ovaltine and condensed milk, surrounded by sliced pan-fried potato. Pretty awesome cake considering the surroundings and what’s available (which is, ummmm, pumpkins, ovaltine powder, condensed milk…). He had carved me a few flutes out of young bamboo, and we sat around and passed the Jim Beam I’d lugged up from the base village (they discourage drinking for obvious reasons), because, let’s be honest here, even the bleakest birthday I can possibly imagine still has whiskey and friends in it. It was great… we made a sort of rice-pudding thing out of the pumpkin filling and the rice leftover from dinner that was quite delicious and filling, and after a day of trekking and zipping, everyone crashed around 9:30 (in order to wake the next morning by 5:30 to catch the Gibbons) which makes quite a lot of firsts for this particular birthday…

then…

coming back to Huy Xai the next afternoon, after another morning of zip-binging and mild exploring, we re-discovered cold beer and grilled meat, among other things — it was like flying into New Orleans from Saudi Arabia . After a shower, I climbed up the hill to Wat Huy Xai to watch the sunset. Striking. A monk with some interesting tattoos on his shoulder sat down and started chatting. Turns out we had a lot in common, if you overlook the whole “I’ve-been-a-monk-for-five-years” part. I told him it was my birthday and he said “I have a gift for you!” then ran off for a few minutes. He walked back up to the bench with this huge spliff in his hand….

“Woah man… aren’t monks… umm… not supposed to smoke?
“No, just alcohol. My friends and I smoke everyday.”
Sounds like some monks I know back home!

“Uhhh… okay. Thanks!”

I blazed with a five-year Theravada monk on the top of Wat Huy Xai watching the sun go down, chatting about life and weed and tattoos and family and fishing and China. On my way down the hill, about half-way down the steps, three Laotian guys were sitting around a small table with their shirts off, passing the glass… they waved me over. I sat. They had a basket full of small snakes, just burned to a crisp, that they were pulling the spines out of, dashing in dried red pepper, and popping in their mouths. They were rather disgusting but with enough red pepper you couldn’t quite taste the flesh or the carbon surrounding it… we passed the glass around a few times and I thanked them. It was only 7pm or so but the gifts had been flooding into my system… at the bottom of the hill, I ran into some tree house friends patronizing this fantastic grilled-meat stand, where the barbecued chicken inexplicably tastes just like home. We had a few. I told them about the monk and the guys on the hill. Eventually the whole tree house was there again, plus some new friends, a nice girl from Chicago whose brain I thoroughly picked about Myanmar and another Canadian who was in a different tree house. I couldn’t help but say it: “Damn! Beer tastes good today…”

In “The Book”, April Seventh is “The Day of Enthusiastic Belief”, which may or may not explain the next part of this story…

I wound up drinking much too late and much too much, considering I hadn’t been drinking anything recently… we drained the rest of the Beam, then some Thai guys bought a bunch of Lao whiskey and we started drinking that, punctuated by cold beer (did I mention it was cold? Good Lord the beer tasted good that day!). It got late, real late for a small border town in Laos, and we swaggered and stumbled back to our guesthouses shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing and telling stories…

It was only when I was back in the guesthouse that I realized I didn’t have my sidebag with me. This was a catastrophic mistake — my sidebag has… well, basically everything important in it. Now, I bet you’re asking yourself, “Why in the hell would you take the bag with everything important in it with you to the damn bar?”

Well, I needed something to carry the whiskey in…

Anyway, I make the mad dash, barefoot, back to the bar — no staggering to speak of; I’m suddenly as sober as a Turk and something greater seems to have sucked all the alcohol out of my blood, just like the alcohol had sucked all the brain cells out of my head. The bar is locked up. I knock, quietly, several times, at various doors. An older, pot-bellied man with limited English understands my pantomimes very quickly and offers to tuk tuk me to the house of the bar owners. Lots of dogs in this neighborhood, and they seem averse to random barefoot westerners meandering about at odd hours. We fail to rouse the owners. He takes me back to the bar and a feeling of hopelessness washes over me… what a stupid mistake! Why the hell would I bring the absolute most crucial items with me to the damn bar!?! I deserve this, this loss…

He pantomimes a gesture that says “Be sitting here, at that table, at 8am tomorrow morning, and we’ll find your bag. Everything will be okay.” I offer him the last of the Kip in my pocket but he refuses. Obviously, I didn’t sleep very well that night… I woke up at about 5:30 and sat there planning out the worst-case-scenario. It was looking pretty bleak… without that bag, I am utterly and completely screwed.

At 7:30 I walk up to the bar, and there are three older Laotian women and a young boy, sitting drinking tea… and there it is, my bag, in the middle of the table. I got on my knees and kissed the ground — I love this country. I walk up almost in tears, and it’s clear they can see how important this bag is to me… They invite me to look in it and make sure everything is there, to which I almost flat-out refuse but eventually decide is, in fact, a good idea. Passport is there, though not where I left it. Money clip, with all the cards present but re-arranged in a different order, and about $90 USD missing. An amount of Kip that I am unsure about. My headlamp is gone but my camera, iPod and other random tidbits are intact. Someone has gone through this thing pretty hard. I sort of gesture “there’s some stuff missing” to them, and they kind of scoff, then run off and fetch a man from across the street. He speaks very good English and introduces himself as to be a translator/mediator for us. I explain that I don’t want to cause any trouble and am extremely grateful for just having the bag (and the most crucial contents) back, but that $90 is a lot of money. At the mention of $90, he sort of raises both eyebrows… “that’s about a months wages”. “Yeah, I know.” Suddenly other random facts start running through my head: $90 is about what I’d take home from an eight or ten-hour shift wrenching bikes. $90 is the exact amount of the 2 night stay in that swanky guesthouse that Nan comped me back in LPB. $90 is, back home, perhaps a night on the town with some friends, or a dinner with drinks for two at Murimoto or Harvest, or a weeks worth of groceries… $90 can be a life changing amount of money here. The owner of the bar walks up and explains to the mediator that he did, in fact, go through the bag and the cards, trying to figure out who’s bag it was, but then left it at the bar overnight and gave it to the family behind the bar (the three older women) that morning as he doesn’t open the bar until 5pm. So by this point, the bag has passed though the hand of at least four or five people. Eventually it’s insisted and translated that no one present took the money. The mediator explains:

“This happens sometimes. Usually, there’s no theft here — they say you were drunk last night and maybe you spent the money, maybe you put it somewhere else, something like that. Since no one agrees, the only thing left to do is call the police.”
“Well, I certainly was drunk last night… but there is no possible way to spend ninety US dollars in a bar here in one night. I hate cops. I don’t want to cause trouble for these people and I’ll probably never see the money again anyway. What do you think?”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, I hate cops too. They probably take three or four hours, write down everything from everyone. Maybe nothing happens, maybe someone is lying. It can help, maybe… it’s all that’s left to do, and I have to go to work.”

In my head, it all sort of clicked: the booze, the karma, the luck of getting any of it back, the little boy hugging his mother on the table in front of me after I gave them 50,000 kip when they handing me my bag (this was before the discovery of the missing stuff), the straight-forwardness of the very nice English-speaking guy who helped mediate this whole thing (“I hate cops too”: pretty epic), the fact that in spite of the surrounding nations and the constant trampling of tourists, Laos is still one of the poorest and most remote countries on earth (the GDP per capita is just $2,100, although Lao currently has the 14th highest growth rate in the world), the fact that the US spent $2.2 million per day for 8 years bombing the hell out of the place but only contributes $2 million per year to the removal of UXO, the full removal of which (at the current rate) may be possible by around 2110 or so…

Well then it’s settled. I really do hope that family has my $90 and can make use of it; I’d have paid much more to simply get my passport and cards back. I am, put simply, rather stupid, and the pure joy and fun of the evening brought out some lackadaisical comfort zone in me that made me lose the one bag full of shit that I absolutely positively must not lose. Sometimes I really suck at this whole traveling thing. My own negative, self depreciating thoughts drifted back to Orwell’s supposed self-written eulogy for John Flory, the main character in Burmese Days:

Goodness knows where they will bury me – in their own grave yard I suppose, two feet deep in a painted coffin. There will be no mourners, and no rejoicers either, which seems sadder still, for the Burmese celebration of a funeral with music & gambling [seems] nicer than our beastly mummeries. But if there were anyone here whose hand could form the letters, I would [like] him to carve this on the bark of some great peepul tree above my head:

Here lies the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards & gin
Were the four things that did him in.

He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.

O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.

Now, I’d like to think that I don’t work (or live) for the essence of money, and I certainly don’t sleep with women I find trite or stupid, and I don’t gamble, and gin is generally the last thing I’d possibly order… but I felt just like John Flory that morning. I ain’t Nixon but I sure ain’t Robin Hood either; I’m a rather simple 25-year-old guy and I’ll be the first to admit that I make a hell of a lot of mistakes, and if it weren’t for the good will of others — even if that good will is used with some amount of grey, some fuzzy logic — I’d be completely under a sea of shit right now… so I thank my thieves, those I drank tea and broke bread with. Count yer blessings, kids… keep it in perspective.

coming soon — Return of the White Devil to the Glorious Motherland of Red China…

cheers, and thanks to everyone for the birthday blessings…