The streets in Vientiane are very dark at night, there are very few streetlights, so I was a bit frightened last night to find myself lost in a city of darkness, feeling the eyes of the locals scanning me. I had walked too far again.
Finally I found neon signs, the sounds of U.K. accents and boiling laughter. After four flights of stairs, on the roof overlooking the Mekong, I found a large bar filled with aged white men, clutching their Lao women.
I had a beer and tried to talk to some of the foreigners, but I couldn’t get interested in them anymore than they could in me. Most were aging hippies who had come for “spiritual guidance.” They told me this as they hunted for women, and one even claimed that he was “from Lao,” and “doing nothing” there. I went outside and was approached by teenage Lao girls who all called me “honey.”
No. Lao is such a comfortable, friendly country with children eager to learn and a rising potential, why did I have to encounter this again, here? Logically I have nothing against it, I don’t see how I could. And yet it disgusts me tremendously.
I was hailed by a ladyboy sitting with a group of young foreigners. “Hey, you come talk to us!” the ladyboy said. He was not like the other ladyboys I had met, (s)he looked older and had no surgical alterations. I went to share some beers with the group at the small outdoor bar.
“You’re from Seattle,” said a young American decorated in tatoos and wood ear-rings.
I wanted to punch him in the face. “No,” I said. “I just live there for now. How the hell did you know?”
“I’m from Eugene, Oregon. You’re also half Phillipino, right?”
I don’t see why he needed my confirmation, he seemed as certain of it as a mathematical equation. Most urban explorers begin traveling as a means to lose their identity, to free themselves from the binds of self-consistency that are put on them by their friends, family and culture. But this guy was bringing it all back to me. His name was Ben, and he lived in India as a musician.
I met the group. All of them were urban travelers like myself, all of them were traveling alone, like myself, and all of them were in their twenties. There was a man from the Czech Republic, one from Frankfurt, a girl from Slovenia, a guy from France, Ben, me, the ladyboy (Jimmy) and his cousin, who didn’t know a word of English. There were others who I can barely recall.
“It’s disgusting, it’s not right, I can’t stand it,” the girl from Slovenia was in an outrage about the prostitution in Lao. So it was with all of us.
“But you must understand these girls,” said Ben, calmly. “Go home with one of these girls, go to the village where they live. Meet their parents, eat dog with them, drink Lao-Lao (Lao alcohol) with them, spend all night slapping malaria-ridden mosquitos, see the expression on her little brother’s face when she arrives from the city bearing food for them, and you will understand why they come out to the street and beg for an older man.”
“These girls are so poor,” Jimmy added. “They have no choice, they can work maybe selling coconuts for thirty cents an hour, but you wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t do that, nobody would do that. All of us would rather love someone for one night and live off of that for a month.” Jimmy’s Lao accent made the words strike even harder, it was a man faking a women’s voice, in a Lao-English lisp. Everyone at the table knew that Jimmy had lived a life we could never concieve of.
“Well, the girls are one thing,” the Slovenian said, “but who are these men who come here just to buy prositutes? That is disgusting, if you are sixty years old, do not sleep with your grand-daughter.”
“They have a penis,” Ben said.
“But it is disgusting!”
“I’m not attracted to a sixty-year old women now,” I said. “I doubt I will be when I’m sixty. My taste in women hasn’t changed since I was twelve.”
“They cannot get women in their own country,” said a man with black hair and a sly grin. I have no idea what country he came from. “So they must come here because they’re so ugly.”
That made me rancorous. “Can’t get women in their own country? They spend their lives making money, devoting themselves to a family, a job, whatever. Do you know how much effort it takes for some people to sleep with a terribly beautiful woman? Haven’t you ever read a novel before? Think how much easier it would be to buy a plane ticket and sleep with a different beautiful girl every single night, and the money that they spend means nothing to them. Only people like P. Diddy can do that without paying for it, and look how much he spends on women anyway! How many novels, how many love stories appear idiotic to men like that?” I was defending the sexpats. Even though they disgusted the hell out of me, I wasn’t going to let people get away with deeming them monstrous. “Sexpats are the easiest people in the world to understand,” I said. “They are men with money who like sex.”
Nobody would argue against that because they knew it was true. They knew that even this group of young travelers would some day be in the positions of those men, and at that point, would we have the morality–the will, to condemn the practice?
Jimmy said something similar, about how he was in love with a “client,” and became the foreign man’s boyfriend for five years and that’s how he learned English. He said that the prostitutes usually have several boyfriends sending them money every month, sometimes they fall in love. The ones who are not poor will sometimes sleep with men just to enjoy it, but if they’re poor, they’ll always ask for money. Poor like Jimmy’s cousin, who was a gorgeous Lao girl sitting next to me, a prostitute in training.
When Jimmy was talking it was difficult not to listen, but I suddenly felt something wet on my cheek. It was a quick kiss by a very thin smiling Lao girl that couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. She was taking turns sitting next to people, holding their hands, kissing their cheeks playfully. She was also drinking and chainsmoking.
Her name was Lin, she spoke no English. Ben bought her a beer and gave her another cigarette. “I got to tell you about this girl,” Ben said. “This girl is so young, she’s mentally retarded, so these disgusting assholes, they take her and they make her love them. She doesn’t know any better. I see her on the streets, crouching down, smiling, she doesn’t know any better. So every night we buy her beers, we give her cigarettes, and she fucking chainsmokes man, and she drinks everything we give her, but never acts any different. Now this girl, we love this girl man, we protect this girl. If we don’t drink with her you know what happens? She gets bored, she goes on the street and goes to that fucking bar down the road that you came from.”
“Yes yes I understand,” nodding. He didn’t have to explain it any further, he could see that I understood what I was getting into.
I can’t remember how many of us there were, but when that small outdoor bar closed, we all walked together in a dazed, Dionysian procession down the streets of Viantiane, calling anyone we saw to join us in our debaucherous parade. Jimmy took us to a big bar, where he trained his little cousin how to approach foreigner men. I met some people from South Africa and New Zealand.
“It’s not the American people that we got problems with,” the Kiwi said. “It’s the American government. Who will you go to war with next?”
“I don’t hate the government,” I said immediately. “Our constitution is fine. I have a problem with the American people, they’re the ones who voted for Bush twice. Don’t feel bad if you don’t like the American people, or feel disgusted at them, maybe you should.”
My comments staggered everyone in the bar and they didn’t know what to say. They all thought the same thing, but had been too nice to say it, so that the American must be the first. I became popular fast, and as a result, drank much more than I should have while moving from groups of people trying to find my footing and hopefully steal somebody’s hat (I must wear a ridiculous hat sometimes). I bought a bottle of green tea to lighten myself up. I checked to make sure that Lin was not selling herself to anyone.
Lin was overjoyed to see me. Out of all the foreigners, for some reason she took a great liking to me more than the rest. She tried to hold my hand wherever we went, she looked to me as if I was an older brother, though I’m not going to totally count out the possibility that she was looking for a hand-out. No, I will count that out, actually, there was a sincerity in her and that was what we were trying to protect.
Jimmy looked upon his cousin with some success as she walked away with a middle-aged white man.
When the bar closed we knew we couldn’t call it a night, because of Lin. So we stumbled through the streets in our procession, which had now dwindled to maybe six people.
Ben walked us to a bowling alley, filled with the city’s youth. I was dizzy as hell. I drank more green tea, trying to get my bearings. I hadn’t felt this drunk in a long time. I hadn’t eaten that day.
We made no effort to bowl, all of us too far gone to responsibly hold heavy objects. I stayed with the group but couldn’t help wandering around the place. I found an empty massage parlor and tried to fall asleep in the massage chair. No! We had to stay up, we couldn’t let Lin get bored. When I stood up from the massage chair I was even dizier. I drank the rest of the green tea.
We tried playing pool, and couldn’t hold the sticks right. The sun would come up soon, and Lin would be ok, but right now we had to make her happy. See Lin? Your innocent kisses and cheery composure won’t be laid out for some rich guy looking to bone a young girl. They will never have the chance to laugh when they realize that you’re mentally disabled, we won’t give them that. We will stumble, and drink, and chainsmoke, and laugh ourselves to death before we let that happen.
Some of the foreigners had left, and it was just me, the French guy and two Brits we had just met. They were all getting tired, and Lin seemed bored, her eyes kept moving to the group of older white men at one of the alleys, who were looking back at her. I was too drunk to do anything about it. I found a chair and slammed my head into the cushion, desperately, horrendously drunk. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. I had ruined myself. I remembered what I had done. I had bought that bottle of green tea, poured it all out, then replaced it with whisky, so the people in the bar wouldn’t get mad for bringing in outside alcohol. I had done that, and had completely forgotten about it, too drunk to even notice the change in taste.
I was wasted, the levys in my blood-brain barrier broke, and I breathed only in forced fits and vomitted all over the floor.
Luckily no one saw me do any of those things, I was in the empty massage parlor when I did them. I couldn’t walk down the stairway to the bowling alley so I stayed up there, I couldn’t help Lin anymore, I couldn’t do anything but try to vomit the alcohol out. I hadn’t vomitted since I was six. I wanted to cry for fear of what could have happened if the others had let her down, as I did. I wanted to go into the street and catch those men walking with her to their hotels, so I could tear out their adam’s apple.
Hours passed, but the sun still wasn’t up. After a while I was able to walk down the steps, and I saw Lin sitting in a booth with the man from France. Viva La France! He was the last one. He turned and smiled to me and I knew it was alright. I went outside and the sun was coming up. On the long walk home I thought that soon we would all be waking up with light hangovers, but knowing that we had at least done something to combat the disgust we felt.
When I woke up this morning I tried to remember last night as plainly as possible, but there was one thing that kept popping up. At the big bar, I had asked Ben: “What about when we leave? Lin will just go right back to that bar, back to the streets.”
“When we leave?” he said, “Hopefully there will be people like us, who will see this girl and drink with her and offer her cigarettes.”
I don’t want to tolerate this anymore. I don’t feel like I can afford to tolerate this anymore. Lin comes from a family in the village. Everything we did last night may have kept her family hungry, it may have kept them from getting the medicine they need, and yet we couldn’t have done anything different. Adolescent prostitution is the easiest thing in the world to understand.