US Consulate, Thuk Thuk Driver, and an Old Woman on the Plane

(Two Thursdays ago now) By the end of work, I already have a plan for my Vientiane passport trip. Okay, by plan I mean I know exactly where I’m going to eat. Yeah yeah, I figured the passport stuff out, but that’s second to milkshakes and burgers. I get in to the airport in Vientiane around 7 and take a taxi to my hotel, conveniently located right by all my favorite restaurants in the area and the opposite side of town from the embassy. I probably would have been closer if I had just stayed in Luang Prabang. I wanted to find a hotel room for cheaper than my last trip because on this trip because I just want a bed and bathroom with shower, which could all be in the same room for all I care, as long as it’s clean and everything works. I’ll only be there to sleep, so I don’t want the extra TV, breakfast, room cleaning services that you can get for about $10 more in the area.

After a short taxi ride, I’m at the hotel and from the front the place looks big and just about what I’m looking for. I already paid for the room online, so now I’m just hoping their side of the deal is what I’m expecting. The guy up front leads me to my room. On my way I pass by the shared rooms and bathrooms. The combination of the smell and dirt are like something from a horror movie. I quickly get passed the rooms, but now all I can think about are the possibilities of my room… Well, at least it will be a good story.

My room looks pretty big and overall pretty good from my first impression. I set my stuff down as the guy points things out around the room. He leaves and I immediately start to get ready to go and eat. The main walkway of the room is clean, but everywhere else looks like it’s never been cleaned. It looks like a small child cleaned the room with the prospect of playing with his friends outside if only he could just finish his chores. There’s no soap or toilet paper in the room at all. I close the window, so I don’t have thousands of blood sucking friends to greet me in my bed when I get back. One window closes easily, but the other one is on the other side of a big tree branch. After about three second of wrestling with the branch I lose my patience and try to just close the branch in the room. The only thing that manages to accomplish is making the room dirtier. I finally wrestle the branch away and get the window completely closed. There’s a big family sized fridge, which looks like it might have been the original fridge prototype from the US. The inside is absolutely filthy, I’m not sure if there’s more mold or shelf space, so I quickly close it with the hope that nothing that was growing inside will become big enough during the night to eat me. I go in the bathroom to pee before leaving to get dinner. There’s actually a bathtub, which is really shocking. I don’t see that often here, in the houses or guesthouses I’ve seen. The bottom of the tub looks like they couldn’t get the stain from the pool of blood or there’s something, with a much darker color then the fridge, growing and feeding on the porcelain. The rest of the floor is cleaner, and there is a sink, so I’ll give them that one. After using the toilet, only peeing thank goodness, I go to flush and of course it doesn’t work. The lid is off and on the ground next to the toilet. I know how I can make it flush, but there’s no way my hand is going inside the back of that toilet. I could only imagine what might be in a place that is supposed to have water in it 24/7. I go back down to the desk on my way to eat and tell him the toilet won’t flush and I need toilet paper.

After getting some wonderful western food, I head back and am ready for sleep. My appointment tomorrow is at 8:00 and I’m not sure exactly how far away this place is, so I want to get there early. When I come back in he asks if I have my key, I guess he lost his or doesn’t have another one.  Then he looks for a few seconds behind the desk and tells me the toilet paper is finished. I just stare at him for a few seconds to try and detect if he’s really joking and if that’s all he’s really going to say to me. I think he takes the hint because he tells me to hold on as he checks a closet and then leaves before coming back with the same answer. Yup, that’s just the answer he’s going to give to me. We walk up to my room so he can check out the toilet. Just as I expected, he tells me that I just need to stick my hand in the back. When he does it to show me I daydream about him screaming as a moldy toilet paper monster grabs hold of his hand. I think he could tell I zoned out a bit there because now he’s in a different part of the room, on his way out. Accepting all of this in my head and just accepting that next time I need to spend a few extra dollars on a slight upgrade to where I stay. Then, he suggests to move me into a new room. I’m hopeful at the suggestion and slightly scared in the back of my head. I can deal with all of this now, but I don’t want him to introduce something entirely new into the situation.

The new room is fine, still dirty, but I can use the handle on the outside of the toilet to flush, so I feel quite fortunate. I plug the mini fridge in and open it to put my left overs in and there’s a bad mold smell, not quite as bad as the other one, so again a bit of an upgrade. I use the push button lock on the door handle, but always feel safer when these places have a dead lock to slide. After both of those locks are secured, I take a quick shower and fall fast asleep.

I wake up in the morning, get ready quickly, and decide to take my backpack and everything with me. I don’t trust any of my stuff to stay at this place. When I open the door I forget about the deadlock, but the door still swings right open because the wood behind the lock part is gone. Good thing I find out about that on my way out and not before I try to sleep. I should’ve just tried to push on the door without using the handle too. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have tried that.

There’s a thuk thuk (local taxi name here in Laos. Foreigners generally call it tuk tuk, but don’t get me started on that rant. It’s with a th sound.) driver out front that I talk to and get his offer to go to the embassy. I get his card in case his offer is the best I can find later. I don’t get a good feeling about him, so I’m definitely going to try other drivers first. After some breakfast I call the first thuk thuk that is about to pass by. He gives me the same price so I cut some off and he agrees to take me. He tells me that we need to pick up his friend first on the way. Of course he would wait until we start driving to tell me this. That’s so typical of taxi drivers here and in Ghana. The closest time I was to getting in a fight in Ghana was with a taxi driver who did the same thing. I finally opened his door and acted like I was just going to step out. When he stopped the car I got out and immediately walked over to the crowd of people as he jumped out of his car and ran around to where I was, like he was ready to fight me. He was a fat guy, but I never want to look for trouble like that, especially if he has a weapon hidden somewhere. Good thing the public in general in Ghana protects foreigners quite well. I can’t say if it’s the same here. I tell this thuk thuk driver that I can’t and that I have no time to spare. He tells me his friend is a monk, or he’s a monk, or there’s a monkey in the tree, I’m not sure my Lao isn’t that good. I actually do have plenty of time for things like this, but don’t want to reveal my hand to him. He tells me it’s along the way, so I look reluctant, but agree and we continue down the road.

We turn the corner under a tree, but I don’t see his friend up there at all. Then we drive up and stop in front of a Buddhist temple. Ooh, now I get it, but I didn’t know they keep monkeys in the temples. He gets out and picks up some things and actually starts running back to the thuk thuk. It’s not often that I see Lao people run, so I’m very pleased at his effort to get me to the embassy on time. The thuk thuk isn’t really that big, but they precede to load some random things and about 9 novice monks in the back with me. After they’re all in, I greet them and give them the gesture that my novice monk friend in Luang Prabang taught my mom and me. I put my hands flat together and then bend the middle slightly out to make something like a diamond shape, which he told me is supposed to symbolize the lotus flower. Then I put it up to my face and rest the tip of my thumbs at the top of the bridge of my nose, where it meets my forehead, my forefingers and resting somewhere near the top of my forehead. I take a slight bow and greet them all. They all look at me and smile, but only one of them greets me back. The one who greeted me then asks me some questions and assumes correctly that I know how to speak Lao. I find out they’re taking the bus to somewhere far away to visit another temple.

We pull up to the bus station and unload all of their stuff. The thuk thuk driver takes one box up to the bus driver and the biggest box is left there on the ground. I hesitate because I don’t want to help just because I think that’s the good thing to do, I would want to help because they actually need help. One goes to get the box and then stops. I hop out and bend down real low and pick up the somewhat heavy box. I bring it up and give it to the bus driver. Hey, I just earned some nice merit with that. Hopefully enough to reverse the monkey joke I made about the sacred class of people here.

The driver comes back and tells me he’ll go fast to the embassy. I thank him and we get started talking a bit about Buddhism. He’s really easy to talk to and seems genuine, so I’m relieved at this point that I picked him over the other choice. We get to the embassy and I ask him about going back and he tells me he’ll wait for me across the street. He tells me that he’ll do the same price doubled and the business side of my brain says, wait if it weren’t for me you’d be riding back with an empty thuk thuk, so I should get a little bit of a discount because I’m giving you more business and keeping your thuk thuk full. Half way through I stop arguing and realize that I would be saving about a dollar and I’m just happy to have an honest and helpful driver, so I just smile and tell him it’s a good price. He tells me he’ll be right across the street waiting for me. He also doesn’t ask for any of the money yet, so I’m sure he’ll be there.

I’m about 15 minutes early, so I wait out front and resist my temptation to talk to the guard. There are cameras, tall fences, and thick mold monster proof glass on the front area, so I don’t try to mess with the organization that will be my safety scape goat if anything goes crazily wrong in Laos. I get let in and immediately there’s a metal detector and scanner machine. Once I gave up kindle gun and ipod grenade, I felt much more comfortable to chat with the Lao people working here. I greet the woman with sabaidee, but she just gives me a normal response. Oh yeah, I forget that all the tourists know that also. It was so different in Ghana where the greetings were much more intricate, based on time of day, number, gender, and age of the group you greet. Once I got that correct, they were already immediately jumping up and down. I get to the other side of the metal detector and she says something about women’s day and I say oh yeah, and then repeat what she said in Lao. Now I got her excited. I could really see her light up and change completely when she sees the chance to converse with a foreigner in her language. She tells me good luck and then I ask her in English where to go, but she tells me in Lao. The directions are to go straight and go through then next door, so they’re pretty simple. The next part goes very smoothly. I go up to the counter give my application and then at the cashier counter I give my passport and the fee. There’s one other person on the US national side and probably close to 40 sitting on the Lao national side. We’re separated by quite a distance and aren’t really able to converse amongst groups, but can hear someone if they’re talking. I greet the only other guy on my side because I feel like I have to in order to be polite. A Lao woman comes in and sits next to me on the US national side. She looks very confused and after going up to the desk and walking around for a bit she sits next to me and asks for help. I tell her that I’ll be happy to help her fill out the form. Her English is okay, but not good enough for the official form language. After repeating things a few times and using simple language, I finally just switch to Lao and with a short hesitation when she absorbs that I can speak Lao, we move on and talk through the form. The people call me up and I collect my passport. I sit back down and for another 15 minutes we walk through her situation and how to fill out the form. I guess she’s been in the US for a while and when she visited Laos this past time she damaged her passport book very badly. After helping her I feel good and completely comfortable that I’ve reversed my fate from the monkey joke earlier. I tell her it’s no problem and thank her for giving me a chance to practice my Lao. I get slightly worried because I’m outside of the time frame I gave the thuk thuk driver and then I realize where I am and that I’m the only one concerned with time here. Back at the front I chat again with the security lady and the guard next to her. I’m not sure if they’re more excited because I’m a foreigner or just because anyone, from Laos or the US, is hanging around to converse with them. I love talking with people like this because their English isn’t good enough to use as a crutch and because there’s always such a happy atmosphere when we talk. I tell them I’m leaving and we wish each other good luck.

Sure enough, the Thuk Thuk driver is waiting for me and quickly jumps to his drivers seat when he sees me. When he drops me off back in the middle of town, I ask for his number, so I can call him when I want a ride to the airport. If I can find someone who is honest to drive me around Vientiane, I’m definitely going to build this relationship.

I had some extra time to spend before my plane back. I went to this French Bakery that my mom and I went to up in Luang Prabang and it was probably one of my favorite places we went the whole time. Pavath told me the one in Vientiane is nicer, so I went to check it out. It’s certainly bigger and has more choices, so I get my second breakfast and sit down on the cushy chairs and study the Lao language. I want to support the place in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but can’t afford to go on a regular basis. I think it also makes it feel more special when I do finally go. Wanting to give back a bit and help them, I chat with the workers a bit and tell them when the toilet is clogged. It was in my line of sight and away from where they were. I could tell it was making people upset and I wanted to help the staff keep a good reputation. Then a big fat man walks in with his face as red as a cherry tomato, a cowboy hat on, a deep southern accent, a small boy with him. I can see him through the mirror next to the bathroom and immediately forget everything I’m doing with my studying. I can’t help but watch him the whole time. I’m glad he can’t see me because I’m making no effort to be discreet. One of the employees brings him a plate and he looks it for a second before calling the guy back over. He said something about the bread being as hard as a rock and they should just throw it in the microwave. He’s probably angry because it’s not like the usual wonder bread loaf he’s used to eating back home. Then he gets back up and walks his kid to the bathroom, right passed me. After they use the bathroom he comes out into the sink area, which has no door and the kid is still naked. Well that’s weird, but I can understand because the bathroom was small and maybe the sink area should have a door. Then after some struggle he picks up the kid by his wrists and hurries him over to his table, yes, still naked. He pulls the kid up on the table and now the kid is standing naked on the table in the middle of a busy restaurant. I glance over my other shoulder to see if anyone else is noticing this and I see two Muslim women with looks of total shock on their face. I fight so damn hard to give American’s a good impression wherever I go and then some idiots like these come and ruin it all. Then, as if this couldn’t any worse, he sits the kid down on the table to put his pant legs on. Except his butt is sitting right where people would have their food. Writing about this now, I realize that I should have gotten up and said something to him for the sake of the restaurant and everyone else around trying to enjoy their pastries. Finally the kid is dressed, so I go back to studying.

After maybe another 30 minutes of studying, I see something moving really fast out of the corner of my eye and I look over quickly to catch a glimpse. It’s a rat running right under some tables and then behind a small table and I’m guessing into a hole because it disappears. I look around and I don’t think anyone noticed. I’m not creeped out, but again I want this place to keep a good reputation because I like their food and there aren’t many good pastry places like this around Laos. I call the same employee over again and tell him I’m sorry if I’m bugging him, but then go into why I want to help them out. He starts giving me excuses of why its’ still there and I tell him that’s fine, but it’s going to scare away current customers and potential customers if they don’t get rid of it and then I just wished him luck with it and moved on. He thanked me and then went to check it out. After some more time the place gets absolutely full and I decide to leave to free up the space for new customers. I could stay there and study all day, but I want to be fair as I don’t plan on continuing to buy new pastries the whole time I’m here as well. I leave and check the time and realize I have plenty left, so I head to a Belgian beer place that Caroline and I discovered last time we were in the area. It’s noon already, so at least it’s not a morning beer and technically I’ve finished my work for the day, so I’m now on vacation. This time I sat at the bar and despite some small efforts by the bar tender I didn’t feel very comfortable at all. Everyone was speaking French at the bar and when they found out I only spoke English I turned invisible. Even the Lao staff, after I spoke Lao with them, weren’t interested in talking. I quickly get out of there and head over to check off my main list priority for this trip.

At Sputnik’s Burger I order a Chupacabra burger with all kinds of wonderful Mexican ingredients we don’t made this way here and an oreo milkshake. Ooh yeah. The milkshake is seriously so good it rivals some of the best I’ve had back in the states. After I become uncomfortably full I call the thuk thuk driver again and he come in a few minutes and picks me up. I get to the airport about 30 minutes before they even let us into the gate for the actual boarding. There I notice how big my passport is now. They added a total of 48 pages in two 24 page bundles. They stitched it nicely into the book, but it looks like it’s in pain when I close it. We move into the next boarding area and I have some more time to kill so I look around. I see a sign over the boarding area that says the order of passengers to board. First are monks, then it went disabilities, small children, and lastly pregnant women. Wait, what? How are pregnant women the last on that list? I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw them loading puppies and people in bad moods before the women holding the seed of the future of humanity. I also thought that monks were supposed to be teaching everyone about peace, patience, and all that frilly stuff. How does that make any sense then that they board first. Time flies during my mental rant and now we’re boarding.

On the plane an old Lao woman is in my seat and I politely address her in Lao and then tell her I’m sitting there. She moves over and I sit down. I kind of get a funny feeling from her, but I ignore because it’s only faint. I day dream a bit about what I would do if I were sitting next to someone who was really scared on a plane. It must have been subconscious when I saw the woman because shortly after I look over and she has her eyes closed and is gripping the seat as we’re getting ready for take off. The plane shoots off and we’re up in the air. She frowns and makes a groaning noise, like what the hell and I’m doing on this big hunk of flying metal. I figure she knows no English so I speak only to her in Lao. I ask if she’s scared and then I tell her it’s no problem because planes are safe. Then I try to keep the conversation going and keep her mind off of the reality of the situation. We talk about my work and why she’s in Vientiane. Then she goes through the typical discussion about wives and getting married yada yada yada. We get close to landing and she gets really scared again when it starts to descend and shake a bit. Wait, why is it shaking so much? Okay, now I’m getting a bit scared, so I’m going to keep talking to her for my sake as well. I tell her that normally I’m really afraid to ride a motor bike and that it’s much safer to be on an airplane than a motor bike. She tells me that she doesn’t take a motor bike or car either because she’s too afraid. Well great, there goes all my ammunition to try and calm her down. Now I’m just bringing up ridiculous things to talk about like what village she lives in, even though I don’t care or understand any of what she says to me. I think she gets more comfortable because she starts to ask some questions back. Then we get really close to the ground and I start to talk about the beauty of Luang Prabang and Laos. Now were a few feet above the ground and she cringes as we touch down, quite nicely actually. She gives a big sigh of relief and I tell her see we made it, not so bad.  We make our way off the plane and I tell them that I’m leaving ahead of them and wish them luck. After that I get back to the guesthouse and get some sleep.

I have all of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to study Lao and that’s exactly what I do, pretty much the whole time. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend the weekend. I take breaks to go around and get food and practice speaking with people using the words I just learned.

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3 thoughts on “US Consulate, Thuk Thuk Driver, and an Old Woman on the Plane

  1. I tried to get a waitress to make me one at the diner close to my apartment here in Salt Lake and she was so confused. Asking someone to blend your pie up with ice cream is kinda of an awkward thing to ask

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