Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hammer and Tickle

“Give me your wallet!”, the cabbie demanded, impatiently waggling his fingers at me. Sitting alone in the back seat of his taxi, I meekly did as I was told. So much for riding solo at night, I thought. As I mentally kissed my credit cards and cash goodbye, the driver rifled through the money jammed haphazardly in the crease of the billfold. Pulling out a 20,000 kip note, he said, “This is what you should be paying me” and handed the wallet back to me. Looking at the meter, the red light beamed “20”, and I realized I was actually receiving a taxi tutorial on Lao currency. “Kup jai”, I mumbled as I fumbled my way out of the back seat on to the street, still shining blackly after the early evening shower.

And so it goes in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and my new hometown. Arriving with a foreigner’s baggage of suspicion and anxiety, one soon learns to relax, just a little. Though the guidebook descriptions of Vientiane as an undiscovered gem and a bucolic capital are outdated by a few years, judging by the streets swollen with traffic and tourists, the city does deserve its reputation as the most laid-back of all the major cities in Southeast Asia. Walk down any of the tree-lined streets and one is greeted with ancient temples sharing space with pizza parlours and cafes promoting themselves with wi-fi internet and frappucinno knockoffs.

Being surrounded by these Western (as in North American, not Git-along-little-doggies) hallmarks does pose a particular problem for this writer. Inspiration for me came from the unfamiliar, the new experiences that amused me as much as they made me miserable. Living without electricity, finding a scorpion nestled between my feet in the shower, careening on top of a Bangladeshi bus in the pouring rain, being attacked by chimpanzees. Now, those were easy to write about. I moved in to my new apartment in Vientiane this week. Included in the rent are air conditioning, microwave, housekeeping, internet, laundry service and cable TV (with HBO, no less). That isn’t funny at all. I walked into the Home Ideal megastore the other day and was greeted by a display promoting five different kinds of Spam. This place is going to be a challenge.

I had high hopes when I arrived in town. Eighteen hours of flying and crossing the date line had left me hopelessly bedraggled and ripe for being swindled. Getting off my last plane as the clock struck midnight, I expected my visa application to be rejected after an interrogation that would be both lengthy and delightfully embarrassing. Imagine my disappointment when I had my visa and customs clearances in ten minutes. Arriving in the baggage claim area, my two suitcases stood waiting for me, almost mocking me in their banal readiness. At least the taxi ride was bound to be interesting – strange city, a foreign language, the Witching Hour. I ended up sharing the cab with a nice couple who had just opened their own restaurant in the city. Ten minutes later, I arrived at my Guesthouse, with my room reservation still cheerfully honoured. Any hope that I would be able to start my stay in Laos with a Martin-Sheen-Apocalypse-Now-hotel-room-freakout was forever shattered.

Sigh. That’s not to say that inspiration can’t be found. Hammer and Sickle flags fly everywhere, a constant reminder that I’m in one of the last Communist states in the world. And there is an endearing quirkiness to things here to offer a counterbalance to the seriousness of the ruling party. Whether it’s the seafood restaurant proudly advertising its “crap sticks”, the ice cream shoppe topping its “golden sundaes” with kernels of corn or the Swedish Pizza and Bakery down the street, there are plenty of sights to tickle the funnybone. But there’s a significant risk that I could end up, gulp, contented and happy here. I’ll just have to hope that I can find more cab drivers willing to take my wallet.


cochrane said...

Wow...that's a tough one. Perhaps you need to give your integrity a rest and just make stuff up. Do it for the readers, Glenn.

Have an extra crap stick for me.


Anonymous said...

You never fail to make us laugh. Enjoy Laos.

Patty Stuchberry said...

Ha ha - it's no Cameroon, that's for sure!!! Enjoy the cushy life while you can!