Saturday, January 29, 2011

Laos: Inequity Overwhelms Me

Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
Today, Rebecca and I woke up at our hotel, Kinnaly Guesthouse, washed up, organized a bag of laundry to have done, and went out for breakfast. Our tastes weren't for anything in particular so we walked up and down one of the main streets to compare prices. Unfortunately, the closer you are to the river, the more expensive the restaurant will be as the price goes up with the scenery. There is also the variable of what kind of food the place offers: Western dishes will always be at least twice as expensive as Lao food, and very nice Western restaurants will jack up the price even further. There is a French restaurant and a Japanese fusion restaurant we cannot even consider; on the other hand, there's an amazing Indian restaurant we could patronize daily without any financial alarm.

We settled on Pizza Luang Prabang—doesn't sound like a breakfast joint but they served omelets, continental breakfasts, fruit salads, all the like. The interior was much nicer than a regular place but a little rougher, a little more timeworn than the very upper-crust establishments in this city. Chalky white walls with dark wood furniture and floors are such a simple way to fill out an interior but still so classy. The staff wore tidy Polo shirt uniforms and hovered about the periphery attentively. If they got locked into conversation with friends passing by, they made sure to snap their head around and run their attention around the room every few minutes.


We glanced through the menu—Rebecca got the Discoverer's Breakfast and I had a pork and tomato omelet—and whiled the time away as we do. We made small talk, chatted about last night's dreams and our near-future plans. I photographed a foreign logo on a bottle of sweet-and-sour hot sauce. We people-watched the tourists and vehicles drifting by outside: today I decided to take photos of tourists dressing offensively to local custom, exposing shoulders, chests, and thighs. The day is overcast and a little chilly, there's no justification for a pair of Daisy Dukes or a tank top this morning.

Sitting there for too long and being unengaged with any serious matter, my thoughts rolled around to my trip and the inequality of my status as a lower-middle class US citizen compared to the locals I see on the street in Luang Prabang. This is a point I return to repeatedly, either because my idle thoughts wander into that neighborhood or because something occurs to confront my consciousness with it. Usually this is some small feature of life I took for granted in the States but is an uncommon luxury here, and this can be anything from a reliable Internet connection to sufficient dental care. Either I have it and enjoy its gifts while it's very clear most people here do not, or it's something I once accepted as a standard of life but now miss, perhaps more than I have any right to.

A lot of my meta-thoughts have come to encompass the globe. When I think “water from the tap should be clean enough to drink,” I have to remind myself (or guess at) how much of the world for which this is not a standard. When I think about the property I accrued or discover things in the night markets I'd love to own, I have to think about how I don't have a home to decorate right now, how expensive it would be to ship back to the States anyway, and how little the average citizen in my current location has while managing to survive or even find happiness throughout their days.

Then came the beggar children. We don't know their backstory. They could be orphans under the rule of some beggar-king who sends them out with a section of cardboard box, full of trinkets, small dolls, key fobs, and bracelets for sale. They could have parents who, unable to afford tuition for school and unwilling to let them loll about the household doing nothing, send them out to the street with no more English than “buy something” and “cheap, cheap.” The trinkets are nothing, they're not emblematic of any region, they're not precious keepsakes or touching souvenirs. They're more clutter, only hand-woven in thread rather than injection-molded thermoplastic crap. I've never seen anyone buy anything from these children. They only wander up and down the streets, accosting tourists on foot or tourists in restaurants, the tone of their voices somewhere between three qualities: desperate, insistent, or lifeless.

The women of a few Asian nations are known to value very pale, light-colored skin—our Thai phrasebook warned that complimenting a woman's tan was to issue a very serious insult—but all these children are baked deep brown by the sun. Their hair is dirty and unkempt, their clothes are usually the wrong size, and they generally don't have any kind of shoes: their toes are chalky and dusty from the unwashed streets and dirt trails that lace the city. Yet they don't seem to be emaciated, none of them have open, untreated festering wounds or anything: they're eating enough to stay alive and have somewhere to go at night. (Everyone has to go somewhere: there's a midnight curfew throughout Laos and the bars close at 11:30 PM to give staff enough time to clean up and get home. And you can tell how far away the vendors in the night market have to travel by who packs up and drives off first.)

A young girl around eight years of age came up and perfunctorily offered us her selection of wooden bead bracelets and thread dolls. She was not even halfway through her “buy something” request before turning her head and walking off, so conditioned to rejection was she. A few minutes later a young boy, slightly younger, in an old black satin jacket with red cuffs approached us with his cardboard tray of similar wares. His eyes were brighter but he was no more persistent in his sales pitch. We've wondered why these kids aren't in school, and it was explained to us that their families can't afford their tuition (US$1,000/year, which sounds unbelievably expensive in contrast to another story of a young man working to put himself through college at US$360/year).

We watched people go by on the street some more, both Lao and tourists filling up tuk-tuks, tourists on rented bicycles, locals making the social rounds or checking in on each other's businesses, when I heard a stick rapping slowly against the sidewalk. I looked up, saw a haggard old woman, and looked away. In my home city, beggars are only called “homeless” or “pan-handlers” and while the condition of not having a place to sleep is very serious, it's hard to tell who's truly homeless and who's just begging. Seeing a slightly obese person in clean clothes claiming to be homeless strikes a little odd in my mind, though of course there could be all sorts of conditions to explain this mini-mystery. But Lao beggars have a distinct physical advantage over Minneapolis beggars: bodily mutilation.

For nearly a full decade and without permission or knowledge from Congress, the US military bombed the shit out of Laos (the noble United States believes “the only crime is getting caught”) in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh supply line of weapons and equipment, fighting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the south and Communist Laotians in the north. Not all the bombs went off: an estimated 80 million UXO—unexploded ordinance—of bombs and “bombies” (baseball-sized wads of ball bearings and explosive; normally a couple dozen of these are contained in the torpedo-like bomb shell) are still buried in the Lao earth, occasionally surfacing over the last 40 years. These are routinely discovered by impoverished villages all across the country: the adults recognize the bomb shells as highly valuable scrap metal that can feed their families for a month; the children, of course, think the bombies are toys and toss them or bat them around until the inevitable tragedy occurs. But not all of the victims die. Some victims have sections of their limbs blown off, their skin scarred and embedded with shrapnel and, no longer able to work in the village, they have to beg in town.

So it's one thing to walk around in Minneapolis and be confronted by an older man with flushed cheeks and a bloated nose, stinking of beer, hitting you up for change. It's another matter to walk around in Luang Prabang and pretend not to see a man sitting on a blanket, most of his teeth rotted out, his leathery skin tanned a deep mocha, what remains of his arms and legs jutting out from his wrenched torso, unable to say “please help” in your language. Yet somehow we find the inner strength to do so, to pretend to be distracted by a hand-woven silk purse for sale or a conversational tangent and stride past, on our way to some goal worthier than assisting the least of our brothers.

The woman I saw in my glance was, as I say, haggard. The word compels itself into her description. Her deeply tanned skin clung without meat or fat to her skull. One wild eye peered at me through the next table's chair backs and the menu on its podium outside; the other canted at an angle apropos to nothing but ophthalmologic distress. Her jaw hung open and what teeth remained were yellowed and decayed, badly out of alignment. Then her head hopped once and disappeared behind the furniture: her wooden staff resumed rapping slowly against the pavement as she hobbled forward, targeting me.

Already touchy, I was revolted and ashamed of my revulsion. I shielded my vision with one hand on the side of my head and hissed to Rebecca, “She's coming.” Rebecca, who wasn't studying the surrounding environment, wanted to know whom, and her question was answered by another cessation of the wooden rapping against the pavement. The old woman, in a dirty, ragged skirt and a dirty, ragged ski jacket from the late '70s, was standing wordlessly outside the restaurant, staring at us.

I don't wish to imply that I would've handled this situation any better, were I in any other mood. Had I been lighter, cheerier, I would've grinned an apologetic grin at her, waved my hand gently and mouthed more than said, “I'm sorry, no.” That's how I've come to respond to a wide variety of people throughout Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos. They're offering full-body massages; they're asking me to look inside their stores; they're soliciting taxi and tuk-tuk rides or tours to sites of natural wonder; they're simply asking me for money. I smile, wave, and decline. If not this, then we would not be able to live abroad very long for there is an endless supply of beggars, a tremendous store of need that their respective governments will not address. (Is that one of the requisites of a government, that it must persistently fail or betray its people in matters of substance?) If not politely declining, we ourselves would be beggared: we would return to the US and subsist on the kindness of immediate family while we searched for jobs that are not there. And we would hold our breath lest we run afoul of our entirely insufficient and corrupt health care racket, which would surely spell a financial doom from which we would never recover.

So there was the woman, standing there. She had hobbled down the sidewalk with a left foot that twisted inward and did not flex or bend at all. She gaped in her agony and need, silently petitioning for alms. And just then our food arrived.

Now I was an emotional wreck. I couldn't look at this woman and I was ashamed of myself for being unable to man up and extend the ordinary courtesy, the dignity of acknowledging her. Her existence was defined by suffering, mine by relative privilege and indulgence. She was broken, falling apart, beyond such abstract concepts as personal pride and entirely at the mercy of tourists who might or might not have a little extra money to share. And there I sat with a big, steaming pork and tomato omelet in front of me, pretending she wasn't there, relying on my wife to bail me out.

Rebecca fumbled for her purse, fished out a marginal sum of Laotian Kip, and handed it to the woman. She, presumably, thanked her in a raspy voice and the rap of her wooden cane indicated her departure. She only went across the street to a tour office where a middle-aged couple wearing large and expensive cameras were grinning at each other and at the office: they were planning a capricious little getaway, debating whether they could afford it. The haggard old woman hobbled through traffic and crawled up beside them, extending one wretched, inflexible hand to them. The well-nourished, clean, financially stable Western couple suddenly produced a new topic, discussed it animatedly, and turned away to walk up the sidewalk. The old woman hit up a young Japanese woman sitting nearby, who produced some bills after struggling with her voluminous white purse, and the old woman wandered away. The coast clear, the Western couple returned, grinned at the office and each other one more time before entering to plot another memorable chapter in their magical Asian vacation.

I hated myself and everyone else. Not everyone: not the haggard old woman, a victim of large, imperceptible forces, and not my wife with the wherewithal to deal with her. And I couldn't hate the waitstaff who took my order, prepared my breakfast, and brought it out to me. But no way could I eat it. My stomach had turned and I could only stare at the large, baked, yellow mass sitting in a clear pool of vegetable juices and meat oil.

Pork. How appropriate.

“Go ahead and eat your omelet,” Rebecca said, tucking into her fruit salad. “It looks delicious.”

I told her how my appetite had fled and tried to describe my imbalanced mental state. She sighed heavily—not out of impatience with my regressed and mercurial emotional flights, but with some sympathy and upset. She dwells on class structures and social injustice much more and to greater depth, due to her education, than I do or can. She offered me some of her baguette—she can't eat it, being gluten-intolerant, and I usually cover it in imitation-butter and what passes for jam in Asia—and I tried to calm myself down by chewing a corner of it. But the only answer seemed to be to call the woman back over and let her indulge in the epicurean feat her countrymen and woman had wrought. Because they would never feed her any other way, and gods knew I couldn't eat this pile.

It lay on my plate, juices congealing and turning yellow. One section of the plate, under one corner of the omelet, was smeared in black ash, char from the cooking surface that transferred to the plate. From within the eggy blanket peeked a section of hot, limp tomato, onion, and pork. The meat was pale, almost off-white, and particulated, granulated, as though ground up and boiled. I've never understood boiled meat—you either fry it on hot metal or roast it over open flame, in my book—but this is a popular way to make beef sandwiches back home, actually.

I keep saying “back home” as if I have one. Every experience further alienates me from anyone I know. Discussing these revelations as my mind forcibly, uncomfortably expands somehow frames me as “self-righteous” in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. No one else can relate to what I'm going through; a few folks only listen to my privileged white-boy self-pitying rants and try to emulate sympathy. And when I think about what my life will be like when I do return to the States, if my wife and I can find work, if we can secure loans to get a home (we fantasize over the “tiny homes” that are so trendy among ecologically concerned hipsters), then what? Will we make people take their shoes off when they come in, like here? Will we shut the shower off while lathering? Will we grind our own red curry, grow our own food? Will we lean more heavily on Reduce and Reuse than Recycle?

I did end up eating the omelet. Rebecca brought me back down to earth and I hacked off a small square of food and put it in my mouth. It felt like chewing on the ground-up meat of a withered, twisted old woman's foot.

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