“I am never gambling again.” Pai promised himself, like he did every morning as if a promise would absolve him of his sins and then he could again be free again to break promises. “I lost all my money this morning. Now my friends are gambling again at Johnny’s and they ask me to play again. Ahhh my wife not happy.”
Every morning I would come and sit at Pai’s, where we got paid in food for last night’s bar work. Pai would be sitting at the table every time, and I would be at the receiving end of his brainstorms and reflections. His wife was at the back on her iPhone, when she wasn’t cooking or running across the road. She sat behind a cluttered table which was the only cooking surface. If you ordered anything, they would run across the road and get all the ingredients from the shop, or drive to the market to get it. Even if you asked for water they’d run across the street and buy it from the shop for you. It was confusing but I didn’t ask questions. That was just how things happened here.
Eating here was a ritual, and at night before our shift, I’d meet everyone there and we’d eat as they set up the green and red swirling lights across the street at our bar. Music would pick up, and you could hear the soft bass coming from across the town’s small selection of bars.
Pai had a limp. I remember him from last year, but I didn’t recognize him at first. Last year his quad bike tours were popular, but now all his bikes lay broken in his yard and he was out of money. Sometimes his kid would turn up with a ten-year-old on a motorbike. He would come rushing in and stand with his legs apart and just wee onto the ground, while Pai glanced over at us, half-ashamed, but mostly amused.
Then I turned around and his boy, who was only 4, was on the motorbike seat saying something authoritative in Lao, and when I asked what he was saying, Pai said, “Oh, he asking for the keys”. Last year I actually saw a girl thrown off a bike here. I was in the shop buying a pair of shoes for a wedding and was just kneeling to have a look at some cute, but equally impractical black slip-ons when all the women in the shop screamed in unison and a motorbike went by with a man driving, who was holding 12-foot pieces of bamboo over one shoulder and behind him sat a tiny girl who was somehow thrown off the seat into the gutter. She was just a tiny bundle of pastel on the asphalt driveway. The guy kept on driving, while a few of the women rushed to help the tiny girl up and others ran after the driver yelling. He did eventually stop, and when he did he just laughed as the women hit him. The girl was crying and ran into one of the woman’s arms, but after a while she was tranquil and the street resumed to its usual business.
The days were all copies of the day before, copy after copy after copy. It was kind of luxurious, but you soon fell too comfortably into the rituals, so the longer you stayed here the more impossible it was to leave. It’s true though; a lot of the backpackers working in the town were still hanging around from last year.
The sun warmed like a furnace and people lay under the awning or in little roadside huts made out of bamboo, tuk-tuk drivers would siesta in their hammocks, and you heard the Friends theme tune everywhere. The days were long and drawn-out, unraveling slowly like watching shadows creep over the jungle floor.
Pai told me he found out about a rare tree last night that is very valuable and growing in Laos, so was going to search for it in the jungle on the outskirts of Vientiane, Laos’ capital. He would find the seed and take it to an investor. “If you’re clever, this tree can make you very rich,” he told me.
He trawled through these low-res images of the seed on Google. Money, money, money, money. You can tell he’s bored of sitting in this café all day, and sometimes he brings his chair up close to the wall and just stares for hours at the map of the mountains planning new tours.
Next he told me about a magical stone, leklai. A stone you find deep in the cave – Laos is full of caves – and only monks can apparently find leklai. They sit in the cave and meditate for days and the stone is eventually drawn to them. To test the stone’s authenticity, people fire bullets at it and if it doesn’t shatter, it can be worth thousands of dollars. Another way to test it, is by placing it in a bowl of honey and if the honey disappears, the stone is genuine.
I asked Pai if he believed in it. He said, “One time, yes. I tried a potion once when I was younger because I wasn’t getting any girls and I thought if I try, maybe it will work. I put some of this magical powder on my lips. But it didn’t work. No girls took any interest in me.”
One day I cycled to the village where I volunteered last year. It’s right out in the mountains on the opposite side of the river…
Nights there were ebony black; the only lights coming from the stars and flashes of wild pink heat lightening. I think back to last year when we’d lie out and watch them glisten on Beerlao nights. Sometimes you would see the flash of a torch in the swamps where boys would be night fishing, occasionally running back into the kitchen dangling a cold, wet eel from a harpoon. Every place along the road has memories from last year, so I see everything in double exposures.
Anyway I returned to the village, cycling past the rice fields and the small roadside shops with handpainted signs, and past the women weaving beautiful Lao skirts in the sun, and the naked Lao kids fox-flying into these dazzling green lagoons and the albino buffalo alone in a field. And I was on this awful city bike struggling over the red stones, my whole body jolting and jarring pathetically with each push… and I thought to the time I hitchhiked along this road on the back of trucks filled with pineapple heaps, getting stabbed by their spiky tops but laughing with the Lao girls as we were thrown a foot in the air with every bump.
I arrived in the village and there was the project co-coordinator in his hammock in a half-built restaurant. He looked exhausted, watching the catfish. The sky was pureblue, and I listened to the cries of cockerels that continue incessantly here til dusk. We spoke for a while, and I was aware of the changes that had happened since I’d been gone, but also how everything was pretty much the same. There were currently no volunteers and projects that were started last year were still unfinished. I wonder how much things will have changed when I go back next. It still amazes me that despite it’s poverty, Lao people remain the friendliest people I’ve met in Asia. They always greet you with widest sunshine-filled smiles and take each day as it comes.
The other day I found a poem that one of my students called Yee wrote last year, it goes:
The time was at the morning,
It was blizzard.
I am sad because you are going far away
And leaving me alone.
Nine stars don’t illuminate
But a father does good to nine sons.