Weird stuff that happens to you in other countries: a true story

The previous post reminded me about my time in Laos and I thought I’d republish this.

The room was spartan, but large and clean and only 30,000 kip a night, about $4 US. I paid in advance, showered, and left my pack in the room to go get dinner with some friends. I came back near midnight, dead on my feet from the 20-hour bus ride and the heavy meal.

But the room smelled foul. It stank of sewage and corruption and something else. I checked the bathroom, thinking the drain had failed in some discernable way. No, the bathroom looked, and smelled, fine. I went to the lobby, but the clerk was gone and the hotel seemed deserted.

Forget it, just go to bed.

I tried, I did, but the smell was just too overpowering. I decided to just write off the $4 and find another hotel. I stuffed my clothing into my pack and staggered out into the Laotian night.

The streets were deserted except for me and some creepily cheerful lady-boys. I trudged from one guest house to the next, without luck. Most were locked, with hand-written “No Room” signs up; one or two had a foggy nightclerk to tell me the same thing.

Eventually, I gave up and went back to my own hotel. There was a day-room, I remembered, a day-room with a couch. I could crash there.

Except I couldn’t. The day-room was jammed with Australian college kids up late, swigging beer, passing a bong around, and watching TV — and monopolizing the only sofa. There was an empty chair, so I sat there silently and waited. A thriller called Layer Cake, with Daniel Craig, was showing on the TV. In my sleepy haze, I couldn’t follow it, but the stoned Aussie boys seemed to be enjoying it immensely. I watched a slender Lao woman of twenty or so clean the day-room and fold some laundry. It seemed like a strange time to be doing housework, and she was dressed for going out: a little black cocktail dress and heels.

The movie drew to its confusing climax; the Aussies high-fived each other and lumbered off to bed and I gratefully took over the sofa. A Pyrrhic victory: the couch was just a thin cushion over thin, rigid, and widely spaced slats, impossible to sleep on, exhausted though I was.

I went down to the lobby. There was a couch there, a flat vinyl-covered thing. In other hotels, I had seen the hotel staff sleeping on the lobby couch, but here, the staff had vanished utterly, except for the girl in the cocktail dress upstairs. I lay on the couch under the buzzing fluorescents, covered my eyes with one arm, and dropped instantly into sleep.

It felt like a minute, but it must have been a half-hour or so and the girl in the cocktail dress was shaking me awake. Her English was sketchy, the consonants bitten off and the vowels inflated and unrecognizable with Lao tones. I got the gist: the clerk was coming back and was going to want his bed back. I explained to her about the odor in my room, miming a bad smell and pinching my nose.

She nodded, this must have been a known problem. She came up with a solution: since she was going out, I could have her room. Her room? She led me to the door next to the check-in counter, which connected to what I had assumed the office, but was actually her own room.

And not a hotel room: this was a bedroom. It reminded me of my daughters’ rooms, posters and magazine clippings covering the walls, clothing covering the floor. I felt reluctant, somewhat stunned by the new developments, but she practically pushed me into the bed, wished me a good night, turned off the lights, and left.

The bed was huge, bigger than an American king-size, but only a few inches of foam rubber over a plywood base. I was dreamlessly asleep in seconds.

And again, she was shaking me awake. Maybe an hour later, it was hard to be sure. Something had gone awry with whatever she had been planning to do that evening and she had to come home. By way of consolation, she had brought me some food. She held up the plastic bag she was carrying. Dim sum.

Good dim sum too. We sat cross-legged on the linoleum floor and ate Hong Kong-style cha shu bao and shu mei and fung zhao and talked. She showed me her home village on a map of Laos. She would stay in Vientienne for three months to work, and then go home for a few weeks. The owner of the hotel was a friend, she told me shyly, and let her stay for free. I asked her about the party, the job, whatever it was she had been supposed to do that night. She tugged at plunging neckline of her dress, pealing back the dress and the bra to show the wad of kip she had stashed there. She caught me looking at her exposed breast and laughed heartily, as if I had fallen for a practical joke, which perhaps I had.

After we finished her food, she had an idea. We went back to the lobby and she got from behind the counter a can of … spray air-freshener. I almost laughed, she clearly had no notion of the weapons-grade funk that filled my room.

We went to the room. The funk had gotten worse. She bustled about the room and activated several small fans that I hadn’t noticed, set high up in the windows. She sprayed the freshener around generously and we went out in the hallway to wait.

She seemed different. In her room, her adolescent room, she acted scarcely different than one of my daughters herself, cheerful, girlish. Now, standing in hall, slouched against a door jamb, she was sly, knowing. Her voice didn’t change, of course, it stayed the squeaky Lao sing-song, but when I spoke, she watched me from under her eyebrows, a look that would have gone along with a breathy, Lauren-Bacall intonation.

We re-entered the room and to my considerable surprise, it had worked: the room smelled pretty good. I sniffed thoroughly, no problem.

While I was busy sniffing, the girl had reclined on my bed. She lay there, smiling expectantly. I took a deep breath.

I held up my left hand, fingers splayed. With my thumb, I indicated the wedding band. She gave me a few seconds, just to see if the display alone was enough to soothe my conscience. When it wasn’t, she stood up and walked to me, stood very close so I could feel her breath against my face, then kissed me on the cheek and slipped out of the room.

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