I know it well, this sleepy little city on the lazy bend of the Mekong. I have used it. I have been used by it. It is a place where nothing happens for days or weeks, and then you wake one morning to find that anything can happen.
I enticed one of my brothers to come here because he betrayed me. I paid the right people to have him put in a prison for two weeks on a bogus charge to break him and get him to repent, explain his betrayal.
This is the city where not too many years ago I met a Dutchman and he got me into trafficking opium. I made a lot of money getting it into places he could no longer go, money that still makes a huge difference in what I can do in this part of the world. Then little things didn’t make sense and the paranoia set in and it got worse, and I fled. They killed him, the Dutchman, and that was the end of my days of trafficking.
This is that place where one night I found myself smoking three pipes of opium, and I was with a pretty Lao girl of twenty-one by the name of Lizzel. We were in a second floor room and there was no escape. It’s illegal for a foreigner to be with a Lao woman unless married to her, and it’s not the best thing to be found smoking with one you are not married to. There was a knock on the door at three in the morning and I knew they had me. I had no excuse that wasn’t going to cost dollars. But Lady Luck was my other companion that night. It was only her brother at the door wanting nothing more than the keys to her motorbike that was parked downstairs.
This is a city that I always think of as a village and where I have remained in an opium fog for weeks and fallen into a listless lull where I would do little more than scribble notes of imaginary happenings and dull stories in one of my journals. Then I would wake one morning and know that the only way to do right by myself before I became what I cannot afford to become was to go south on punishing roads in broken buses that follow the river, until I would find myself walking into Cambodia, there to turn to other less addictive addictions.
I have come again to this city on a broad and flat bend in the Mekong, and I don’t know why. That is how I have often come to Vientiane, and then without much thought fallen into the daily habit of drinking Lao or Heineken beer at my favourite bars, the nights, most nights, spent with Lizzel at my side, and with nightfall upon us turning to a pipe or two to calm my agitated mind.
On those rare nights when Lizzel is about with friends or family and can’t be with me—she is always here for me when I come, even unannounced, and I can’t bear to turn to my journal, I wander through the bars and coffee houses and restaurants fronting on the river road and back streets. There are always stories I have not heard before. Sometimes I need a story to tell to others, or to myself, but most of all to Lizzel.
Nikki was tall and attractive and had penetrating green eyes and dirty blond hair that fell to the middle of her back. Her legs were long and firm, and no man could miss them. It was not hard to imagine just how good she looked naked. She had presence and confidence and plenty of intelligence. It was there in her grammar, in what she didn’t say, in the reflective pauses before she spoke. She had a strong sense of self. This is how Hans would describe Nikki. How I would describe Nikki to Lizzel.
She said that she was from Cleveland, an eastern suburb, and that she had taken a double major in geography and gender and women’s studies at the University of Toledo. She’d had a boyfriend or two, but nothing too serious, and when she graduated summa cum laude, and with little idea what she was going to do with her degree, she decided to travel for several months. She would use student loan money that she’d put aside and officially claimed to have spent on the road to getting her double major.
After graduation she bought a ticket to Mumbai, and then after spending three days in the huge city that she could make no sense of she travelled through northern India and to the foot of the Himalayas, and then by bus and train to Varanasi and on to Kolkata, finally heading south and into Sri Lanka. After more than four months in India and Sri Lanka, all the while traveling alone, hooking up only for a day or two with other backpackers for company and ideas on where to go next and what to avoid, she flew to Bangkok. She spent a couple of weeks on several of the well-known islands and among backpackers like herself, and then took buses north to Udon Thani, Thailand, and crossed into Laos at Vientiane where she planned to spend several days before going to Luang Prabang. She claimed that her appetite for all this traveling came from a single geography course she’d had, one given by a professor with a ponytail who loved word play and uncommon and extreme ideas and who for many years wandered about Southeast Asia in search of small adventures. His command and knowledge of the region was immense.
On her second day in Vientiane, Nikki met Hans, a strikingly well-fit and handsome German who spoke nearly flawless English. He was in his late twenties, had two university degrees, one in the natural sciences and one in history. He had never been married. He worked for an NGO in Vientiane whose aim was to bring modern methods of teaching math and science to this country that remains resolutely backward, still caught in the tangled web of bureaucratic socialism and faux communism, and the profoundly corrupting ways shared by all Asians.
Not long after finding himself in Vientiane, and living alone, Hans decided to make the most of his freedom. There were plenty of Lao women his age and younger who were quite happy to see him in hotels and boarding houses at his convenience, as long as the police were not about, and as long as Hans was willing to give them some money for shopping on leaving, never explicitly of course for the sexual services they provided. But Hans liked challenges, and one that he began enjoying in the first months after arriving from Frankfort, his home, was to spend time among the young backpacker crowd, there to use his charms and good looks and growing knowledge of the country to hit on women traveling alone. He exploited their neediness, their time away from home and loneliness, their sexual droughts and hunger, their desire to do something exotic in a place to which they might never return.
Nikki was one of these backpackers who caught Hans’ eye, and he could not resist trying to seduce her, get her into bed for a night or two of playful sex. He had done it a dozen times, the low estimate.
Hans noticed Nikki on a quite oppressive afternoon while sitting in a familiar outdoor restaurant a long block from the river. She was eating a late lunch, and she was alone. He made eye contact, she smiled hi and he returned a hello smile, and then he approached her and asked where she was from. They exchanged a few words, he told her briefly what he did, and she invited him to sit with her while she ate her cheeseburger and fries and sipped on a lemon ice tea. Soon they were talking at some length about Hans’ successes and failures in educational reform and how difficult it was to overcome all the inertia—how things had always been done; and then he made the point that for some reason that he didn’t understand the young women in his classes were better students than their male counterparts. They simply seemed more interested in learning.
Nikki said, I’m not surprised. They are women. Women have a way of seeing things more clearly than men.
Could be true in Germany too, Hans said. I just don’t know.
Tell me what you have learned about human rights issues in Laos, Nikki said. Is there any progress being made for all these poor and disadvantaged women? Their predicament is so awful in these countries I have been to.
Hard to say, Hans said. This is not my area of interest. I do know there is still a lot of domestic violence in Laos, the same as in other countries in this region.
That doesn’t surprise me. It’s the same where I come from. Men just don’t get it.
Get what? Hans said.
That we are every bit their equal. More than their equal, to be blunt and honest. We have greater sensitivities. By various measures we are smarter too.
Hans sensed he was being dragged into a minefield and without a compass, of the very sort he had encountered with increasing frequency in Germany. It was one of the reasons he wanted to work somewhere in the Third World, where he would not have to deal with women like this.
Eager to change the subject, he said, What brought you to Laos?
Nikki sat back in her insubstantial red plastic chair. It creaked and swayed, and she had to catch herself from falling over. She was seemingly taken aback by Hans’ dismissal of her question, his apparent lack of interest in informing her about women’s rights and issues in Laos. She said, I heard it’s really different here, not as developed as Thailand. I wanted to see for myself. That’s why I came to Laos. My favourite geography professor always stressed the need for comparative information. He said it’s the only way to see clearly and put in focus what little you think you understand.
What you need to know most of all is that they play by different rules here, Hans said. This is one great difference between Laos and your country and mine. All laws and prohibitions are open to reinterpretations, everything depending on how much you’re willing to pay.
It all sounds so primitive to me. And so…postmodern in a perverted way.
It depends on the circumstances. As I know your country a little, you have a rule of law much as we do in Germany. If you break the law, then you have to deal with courts and attorneys. Money isn ‘t enough to get you out of a problem.
As it should be.
Like I said, it depends a lot on the law or the charge levelled against someone, wouldn’t you say?
I don‘t understand what you are trying to say. The law is the law. Rights are rights and they must be respected. The guilty must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Well, for example, it’s against Lao law for a foreigner to be in a house or hotel room with a Lao girl—
--woman, you mean, she interrupted.
--and you can be fined and put in prison for it.
That does seem unreasonable to me.
And to just about everybody else I know, even many Lao. But it’s not much of a problem once you understand how the law works in practice. It is usually ignored. When it is not you simply ask how much it costs if caught with a Lao woman in the wrong place. You’ll get a number and then you negotiate. Everything is negotiable.
Sounds like a definition of corruption to me, Nikki said.
Very much so by German and American standards. But I think it’s a reasonable kind of corruption. Especially when you have a law that makes little or no sense.
I think I see what you are saying, but…
You have reservations?
Of course I do. There are plenty of laws to protect women in my country, and there should be no exceptions in how they are applied. Women are tired of living in an oppressive patriarchy. The time is lost past for dramatic and permanent change.
More dangerous territory, Hans thought. He remembered her saying that she had a major in something called gender or women’s studies. Maybe it was like what they taught in Germany? Some of it reasonable, much of it little more than an angry tirade against men by women with real attitude.
Again he shifted gears. He said, Would you like to leave Laos with some unique experiences to remember?
She nodded, and smiled.
You have smoked marijuana?
She smiled again, this time all teeth and hot pink cheeks from the heat and oppressive humidity. Who hasn’t if they have gone to college? she said.
Have you ever thought of trying opium?
No, not really. That’s very dangerous, isn’t it?
Not at all. You have read Graham Greene, haven’t you?
Oh yes, all of his books. Some several times. Our Man in Havana was my favourite. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize for his splendid body of work.
Then you know his descriptions of smoking opium in Vietnam? It didn’t affect his writing, or the many insights that he got and left us with in his novels.
I probably read about that but I don’t have any clear memory of it.
You can smoke it everywhere in Vientiane. All over Laos too, and with no problems.
There are numerous places here in Vientiane. Even your drug enforcement people who are here to get rid of opium and get substitute crops in place go to the local opium dens where they are stressed. Or just want to show off to new agents.
No, it’s what I was talking about before. There are different rules here about what is right and wrong. The Lao don’t make the same kinds of distinctions we make in Germany or you make in America. It is not always clear the difference between what is legal and what is illegal here. Smoking opium is just something that no one cares about, and it doesn’t matter what the official position is.
I see. Yes, maybe I do see what you are saying. It is one of the cultural differences that I think I learned about in my anthropology and geography classes. She paused, as if catching her breath, then said, But there are limits. Who in their right mind can accept the idea that Muslim men can have four wives? Or what about the way that Korean women have not been allowed to see their children after a divorce?
Hans nodded. I hadn’t heard this before about Korean women. True?
Well, I don’t get my facts wrong on women’s issues.
Hans was starting to like the way the conversation was unfolding, the way Nikki was getting all wound up, her attitude notwithstanding, She might be better in bed than even the long gorgeous legs and the pouty mouth and high cheekbones suggest. You should try it, he said. Smoking opium, I mean. It would be one of those stories you could share with your friends. I’m sure they would be fascinated because you were so daring.
Umm, I see, Nikki said. She had finished eating and was fingering her bill. A moment of indecision. She put the bill to one side and called over the waitress and asked for an ice tea. Then said, Do you want something else?
I do. He told the waitress to bring him a large bottle of Lao beer. Yes, the large not the small one, he thought. This would keep the conversation going, allow him to up the ante. Get her to the hotel and the good part.
She seemed to be looking him over, making an appraisal of this German stranger before her. Did she know what to make of him?
As I was saying, he said, I think trying a little opium would be an unforgettable experience. It’s easy to deal with. I ‘ve never had a problem, even with nausea which some people have to deal with. A little like marijuana you can easily stop if you think you’ve had too much. You don’t mad or delusional as with LSD and the mushrooms made famous by Carlos--
--Castaneda, she said, finishing his sentence while shifting about in her chair. Then without a word she turned to her large blue and white backpack and from a side pocket pulled out a notebook. She flipped through several pages, stopped at one and read a few lines to herself. Then, looking toward the vines overhead, returned the notebook to her backpack. It occurred to Hans that he’d neglected to register the significance of the fact that she’d not yet found a room for the night. He was lost in this thought when Nikki turned to him and said, Maybe I would like to try it. Yes, why not? But first can you tell me a little more about how the drug affects your mind?
I’ll give you one example, he said. I had a Lao girlfriend who liked smoking with me before we had sex. She said there was something about it that gave her the best sex she ever had. It was like no other feeling she had ever had or could imagine.
Really? How is this possible?
I don’t know personally, of course. He chuckled. I’m only telling you what she told me, male filtered you could say. He chuckled again. She said it was like floating on a magical carpet all the way to the horizon. One long and endless…you know what I mean?
Sounds like something I should not miss trying. Maybe there are extreme geographies after all, like my favourite prof would say all the time. She started to laugh and cupped her mouth. Sorry. That was a private joke between me and my favourite professor.
That’s how my ex-girlfriend described it, that’s all I can say. But then I can add that’s it’s pretty good for me too.
Nikki sipped on her ice tea, then moved the straw about between her large teeth before pushing the glass to one side. She said, Where could we do this without problems?
You mean smoke?
Well, that and other things too, I guess. I might as well take the whole trip.
I know a very good and safe place, where there is never a worry. My girlfriend and I used to go there.
Is it close?
It’s not too far from here. Only a block or so from the river. It’s a nice old hotel called the Mongkok. He stopped and looked at her to see how she was reacting to his pitch. Was he going too fast? Nikki didn’t say anything, and after a brief pause, Hans said, There aren’t too many hotels in Vientiane as interesting as the Mongkok. Lots of dark wooden panelling. It has high recessed ceilings and a sprawling French flavour to it. You can almost imagine the stuffy colonial bureaucrats from Paris walking the broad steps and long open second story hall. It’ a reminder of another era.
You make it sound so fascinating, like I should go if only to see the hotel. Without pausing, she said, Can I ask you a personal question? Are you now in a relationship? .
I was, but it ended about a month ago. We just didn’t have that much in common. It’s hard bridging cross-cultural differences. It’s one of the many things I have had to learn. How many times had he used these very lines?
Okay, she said. When can we go there and do all this? I was planning to go to Luang Prabang soon. So the sooner the better.
In say two hours or so, if you like? Hans said. I have a few things to do for tomorrow for a class presentation. How would that be?
Good, I think. I need to get a place to stay first.
I can get you a real nice room in the Mongkok for fifteen dollars for the night if that’s in your budget. I know the people there and they would give me a good discount on a room.
I don’t know, it might be…
Believe me, you’ll love it. I could arrange it so you can have the same room for the night where we do a pipe or two and then the follow-up.
Good as done. Few backpackers ever wander out that far to get a room, so it’s rarely full. Hans lowered his head, tried to hide his glee.
Nikki looked at her watch. Seven then? she said.
Can we make it eight? he said. I do need to get some work done. Supressing a laugh as these words came out, thinking that the extra hour delay would add to the anticipation, not make him seem quite so eager.
That’s good with me. It will give me more time to clean up and reorganize my things. And yes, I guess I will take you up on getting that room for me. It sounds great.
Hans wrote down the address of the hotel on a napkin and slid it across the table. He said, Just give this to a moto driver. I’ll be there at eight and have that room for you within the next hour. He turned to find the waitress and called her by name. He waved to her with his wallet in hand, a reflexive gesture he acquired in his first month here. After paying the bill for both of them, he stood and said, I’ll bring everything we’ll need.
And—I need to say this—protection too?
Always. Never any other way for me.
Great, she said. I’ll be there.
He knocked on the second floor room in the corner, a room he knew well. She came to the door in tight blue shorts and a floppy T-shirt with an obscure Thai logo on it. She was barefoot and with wet hair. She was more attractive than he’d remembered on sitting across from her at the restaurant. He thought that her long and shapely legs were exactly what every man could imagine wrapped around his neck.
He prepared two pipes and lit one and then suggested they sit on the bed side by side with their backs again the headboard. She proved to be the eager student not keen on showing reservations, or none that he could detect. After about fifteen minutes or so, and with having exchanged few words, she put a hand on his thigh and began rubbing gently. She had also dropped her head onto his shoulder, inviting Hans to put an arm around her, which he did. At one point, she murmured, This is cool, real smooth. I like it more than I thought I would.
It’s a nice surprise to those who have some a negative image of opium.
Because it immediately brings to mind heroin, she said. She snuggled closer and he turned her head to kiss her. She was receptive. They lingered, their lips locked, her breathing heavy.
They finished the pipe, or as much as she wanted. She now said, Would you lie down and hold me. I feel the need to be cuddled. It has not been an adventure where affection is easy to get. This makes it easier.
He obliged, and after a couple of minutes, he said, Do you want to experience the rest of the trip? All that I told you my ex-girlfriend so enjoyed?
She moved her face to his and kissed him full on the mouth, opening, inviting him in. She put a hand on the back of his head to bring more pressure to the kisses. She whispered, I think I’m ready.
He moved away from her and took off his shirt and denim pants, getting down to his shorts. He returned to her lips, picking up where they had left off.
She whispered, Just be careful because I don’t want to get pregnant.
As I promised. You won’t have to worry. He drew her attention to two condoms on the bedside table that she had to have seen.
After he left the room, Nikki naked and beneath a white sheet and sleeping, Hans concluded that the sex had been nothing special. In fact, it was quite ordinary, not nearly as good as he’d had with other backpackers. Or several Lao women. Perhaps she was inexperienced, technique in the bedroom the last thing she would ever learn in geography classes, much less in those that bashed men and used words like herstory and pushed the idea that matrilineal societies are far superior to those that are patrilineal.
Hans had put a twenty dollar bill on the table near the door, enough to cover the cost of the room and the motorbike ride from where they had met. He also left a brief note that read: Everything I promised, I think you’ll agree. You were great, a lover to remember! Enjoy the rest of your Asian adventure. Incidentally, don’t forget to share the more interesting details of the ride to the horizon on the magic carpet with your favourite geography professor. Tell him it was extreme geography at the limit!
Lizzel and I were preparing to go out when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and found myself staring at a quite familiar face: the policemen who I’d worked with four years ago to arrange that my brother be charged with something he hadn’t done and then thrown in a squalid prison where he would quickly be broken and I could get him thinking about what he had done to me.
He greeted me with a smile, and he shook his head. He had a brown envelope in his hand. I had a pretty good idea what this was about. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Vientiane over a year ago, and then it was largely by chance. He had been in the area where Lizzel and I stay to investigate a robbery. I had met him coming out of the building where it had taken place. We repaired to a café where I bought a couple of Lao beers and we talk about all the new businesses on the river front and a recent deadly motorbike accident.
Something we need talk about, he said. I get letter from American Embassy to show you. Not so good what it say. He smiled, like he was joking. He laughed.
I invited him in and asked him to wait a couple of minutes while I talked to Lizzel. I wanted her to go down the street and buy me a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and some snacks. Get something to eat and take your time, I said to her. I have a small Hans problem to deal with.
What this about, honey? she said.
The usual with Hans. He’s in a little trouble and I need to help him.
Okay, you say so.
You know, Hans, honey. He can’t stay away from white-skinned backpackers. Remember what I once told you about German men always thinking of home and white girls?
Okay, you say so, she said. Lizzel kissed and hugged me, then went out to her motor bike and was soon speeding down the street.
He showed me the Embassy letter, which ran to nearly three pages. The gist of it was that I had drugged Nikki and then unfairly taken advantage of her. She wanted it as a matter of record that she was formally charging me with rape, and I should be prosecuted in the U.S., preferably in Toledo where she could get expert advice from women at the university.
It was clear from the letter that the American Embassy wasn’t going to do much. In all likelihood, this letter would be the beginning and the end of its involvement. It wasn’t going to do anything because it almost never does much if anything for U.S. citizens when they get in trouble anywhere in the world. Reading between the lines, it seemed that whoever Nikki had talked with in the Embassy didn’t think she had a very good case, and the reason was her refusal to say what drug had been used to put her in her “impaired state of mind.” I imagined that Nikki was fearful that by telling the people she talked to that she had been smoking opium she herself might be in trouble. She asked them, as the letter noted, “to believe her.”
In spite of the Embassy informing her that she needed to be more forthcoming, and detail exactly what happened between us, Nikki refused to do so, claiming that the word rape was sufficiently transparent that it hardly needed to be defined, except for someone with a “grudge” against women. The Embassy did assure Nikki that I would be found—Nikki didn’t know my real identity or where I stayed with Lizzel when in Vientiane—and the “appropriate” law enforcement people would look into the matter and bring charges against me under Lao law, if they believed she had a legitimate case.
I had raped her, Nikki claimed, because not only had I drugged her against her will but then I had intercourse with her. This was preceded, the letter noted to my surprise, by her stating that I had taken off her shorts and then her panties (it was not noted that they were pink with lots of white lace—quite nice for a backpacker I thought on taking them off) and I had not gotten her permission to do so. She was quite right on this score, for after some heavy petting and my having fondled and sucked her nice firm tits at length—which got her howling and asking for more, she was plenty eager for me to get her shorts and panties off as quickly as I could.
Nothing was said in the letter about me holding her hands down or forcing penetration or anything similar, which didn’t occur in any event but were claims she might’ve lied about to bolster her case. It was, simply all about being drugged against her will and my not getting her explicit go ahead to take off what had to come up to get the mutually pleasurable deed done. It was good that I had brought along some K-Y jelly, because as excited as she was she was also as dry as a scorched dog bone. Though on reflection I couldn’t really imagine her allowing anyone, no matter how important to her charge against me, to examine her for signs of forced entry.
It wasn’t hard for this erstwhile Lao friend and policeman to find me. All he had to do was get a description from any one of three waitresses at the restaurant, all of whom knew me, and two of whom I had slept with in the very room where Nikki and I smoked one pipe and then got it on. Neither of the Lao women needed to be cajoled or tempted with seductive nonsense about having an orgasm on a magical carpet to the horizon.
In all, then, Nikki could expect nothing from the Embassy, and it probably didn’t much matter if there was a hard core feminist on the staff where she filed her complaint. There was always the possibility of my getting stopped on my return to Seattle, but then I could easily enough get around this likelihood by using one of the extra bogus passports I still have, and use, from my trafficking days.
Doing nothing is better than doing something small and getting it wrong is the attitude prevalent in Laos and other neighboring countries. The best that Nikki could hope for was that the policeman friend who had come with the Embassy letter, and who was already indebted to me because of the generous amount of money I’d once given him to teach my brother a lesson, would side with a woman he didn’t know or care about. And as for the rape charge that so easily arises out of that sort of uber feminism that Nikki and other women like her embrace, it would at best be seen as a bad joke. Fucking your wife or girlfriend with a little force is no big deal in Laos. It’s all interpreted as foreplay, the way that passion plays itself out. Not my way, but then I’m not Lao.
We negotiated for all of about two minutes, and then I handed my erstwhile Lao friend a spanking new Franklin, which pleased him greatly. That, I had no doubt, would be the end of the matter as far as the local authorities were concerned. Nikki just didn’t understand, as I told her early on, that things don’t work the same way in Laos as they do in Toledo, Ohio, and that when it comes to her version of a rape charge it was going to be resolved for a mere $100. It would have been less had I cared to play tough on the amount.
I suspect that upon Nikki’s return to home turf, she will rant at length about being drugged and raped in Laos, a country she now will describe to one and all as yet another underdeveloped country without the rule of law and where no woman can possibly get justice in yet one more patriarchal society. She’s right about one thing: her kind in a country like Laos is nothing more than a desperate and shrill whisper in a cave no one care about.
As for Lizzel, who wouldn’t have a clue what gender and women’s studies is all about, or talk about a patriarchy and such, she’d settle for my story about Hans, believing every word I told her and not caring one iota if I made the whole thing up. Come to think of it, if I told Lizzel exactly what happened and what Nikki had charged me with, she might well say, You promise do all that me tonight when we make love?
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org