Today, as I was unlocking my bike, a motorbike with a small Lao woman driving and a big white guy riding behind pulled up and stopped in front of me. As the driver unbuckled her helmet, the passenger got off and took some money out of his pocket and tried to hand it to her. She ran away into one of the handicraft shops, giggling and shrieking “No, no, no.”
Part of the appeal of this country is that money really doesn't seem to trump everything. There are a few people who try to scam you, of course, but it's not nearly as omnipresent as it is in other parts of the region or the world. It's sometimes inconvenient, of course, but I like the fact that if the boatman hasn't planned on crossing the river today, he's not going to do it for one dollar or five or ten. In Thailand, he'd take you, but ask for extra for his trouble, of course. In Cambodia, he'd pocket your couple of bucks, take you across, and then as for the same again to get his boat back over. Just, you know, to see if he could get it. He'd go away again without a fuss if you said no, and it's hard to criticize Cambodia for that kind of thing, seeing how brutally they've been taught that you'd better get what you can in any given moment because everything can be taken away at any time.
But this was going to be about Laos. When I was traveling through the north of this country six years ago, Gabor and I wanted to get to a small town on a day when no bus was passing through. There happened to be a few other foreigners in the village we were in who wanted to move on as well, and we agreed on a price for a truck to take all of us on the six or eight hour journey. I remember some of our party getting frustrated as we picked up other Lao passengers on the way, who were obviously paying the driver a small fee as well—we had paid for the truck and we wanted the truck for ourselves, or some of us did. But the truck driver really wasn't trying to be shady—it's just that the idea of paying for and keeping all this big roomy truck for only a few people would have been pretty foreign here. This is a culture that shares and crams in and shares some more: women in trucks will enthusiastically pat a three-inch gap next to them and then grab you by the shoulders and press down until you're wedged in. I've had my hand pushed into communal plates of sticky rice. Traveling here, I got used to taking trips with strangers' heads resting on my knee or shoulder as we rocked together in the back of some truck, trying to dodge the drops of rotten vegetable juice seeping through the roof from the produce piled on top.
OK, typing this, I can't wait to do it all again. Anybody in?
My Lao has stalled a bit—I need to go out and recruit someone to teach me for an hour or so a few times a week. What I can say I say pretty well, which leads the people I talk to to grin and immediately start talking and asking me questions and laughing, at which point I have to flap my hands like an idiot and try to remember the word for “I don't understand” (bo kow jai) and “a little bit” (noi nung).
sin (short, falling tone): meat
sin (high tone): Lao dress or sarong.
Anee men gnang: what's that. (Anee means this or that).
Paeng si die: so expensive I die, or expensive until I die. Paeng means expensive; it's another one that's the same in Thai. This gets a lot of laughs.