Huay Xai was pleasant enough. I suppose.Or would have been – if not for my own naivete.
I’d be lulled by the easy camaraderie of locals and farangs in Thailand and had thought to look after only my physical safety in Huay Xai – rather than cautiously judging and weighing all of the implications of my friendliness. I hadn’t realized that in Laos, where travelers and locals barely interacted and the government’s answer to the proliferation of the sex trade had been to interdict sex between foreigners and Laos, casual friendliness with a Lao man would result in him deciding he wanted me to bear his children and marry him.
The man, and his coworkers – they all worked for the Laos’ government in the capital, Vientiane, and were touring the Bokeo province for an inspection – had been quite polite at the restaurant where I’d had lunch. He was the youngest of the group and after a moderately interesting discussion of Lao history and politics, on a rudimentary level, my travel and education plans, (they side-stepped all questions regarding their work; the most I managed to get was the name of the department that employed them) with the entire group, I let him help me buy a local SIM card and accepted an offer for a motorbike lesson. (Manual on a dirt road with a chorus of children in the trees and teenagers on a fence – their English actually better than his – didn’t accomplish much.) He was fine – rather boring, not much of a conversationalist, not overly-pushy – there were a few warning hints (he began to tell me what I “could” and “couldn’t” do – buy a certain brand of water that wasn’t “good enough” for me, sit on a stoop that he considered too busty; I took it as protectiveness in a culturally relative stride but was considerably pissed off before we parted), but I simply expected that a lack of a response would be enough of a discouragement. “Lack of response” is, however, a culturally relative term – my lack of a favorable response was interpreted as a lack of a negative response. Mere borderline politeness is encouragement. (This is one of the ways in which I think it’s far easier to travel as a man – a hello is not mistaken for a come-on. Forget being safe(r) from rape and physical danger; the real pluses are simply being able to urinate while standing and join a group of men for a beer – assuming its a friendly group in a safe public place – without additional complications and serious second thoughts.)
The real mistake was, retrospectively, accepting the invitation to the business dinner that evening – although it was really rather interesting: an open-air karaoke arena, a veritable feast of the best food that I’d had in Laos before or since, and polite smiling and nodding (and exuberant applause for the Provincial Head and his Deputy when they sung – I was given cues) – and remaining polite. When I asked for a ride back to my guest house, my host had decided to instruct his friend to drive us to his guest house; when I made it clear that I wanted to return to my own, he walked me there (not knowing Huay Xai and it already being dark, I didn’t argue with his declaration that it “wasn’t safe”). It took over twenty minutes to persuade him to go back to his own room rather than following me to mine and, thanking him for his hospitality with my teeth gritted and my tone frosty, heaved a sigh of relief as I locked my door. I unlocked it in the morning to his disgustingly smiling face.
“What are you doing here? How did you find my room? What time is it?” I should have simply said ‘Go away!’ and closed the door again.
“Nola, Nola,” he said (Noelle doesn’t translate so well – I’m Noela in Africa and Nora/Nola in Asia) “No worry time. Plenty time before your boat leave. I want to see you.”
“Don’t you have to work?” That wasn’t the best line, either. But it was early. I was confused.
“I want to see you.”
“I want to sleep.”
“I will sleep with you. Let me come in.”
” I want just talk. You will leave. I miss you. I miss you already. I want to be with you.”
“Go back to your own room. Please leave me alone.”
“Nola, I am not bad man. Promise. Just want to see you.”
The old woman down the hallway was glaring at the noise. He turned and spoke to her in Lao, fast and defiantly. She shuffled away. I’m sure the other guests weren’t amused – well, maybe there were, if anyone has it in them to be amused at six am in the morning.
“I need to pack. And shower. And eat something. And I don’t have a ticket for the boat yet so I need to go down early. I told you this last night.”
“I no work. There is time. I take you breakfast!”
He couldn’t be reasoned with. Perhaps he could be ignored. I grabbed my towel, shampoo, and a change of clothes and locked the door behind me. The old woman mumbled something to me as I passed her on the stairs. I took the longest shower I possibly could with freezing cold water that trickled out of a rusty hose at a ninety degree angle from the wall and hoped he’d have left before I returned. Not only was he still there when I returned, sitting cross-legged beside the door, but he’d taken my clothes off the line outside and folded them all.
“Thank you,” I started, “but I don’t have time.” I had turned the key in the lock as I spoke and he pushed past me into the room. He seemed more puppy-dog than dangerous but I didn’t want him in the room – I wasn’t sure how to get him out – the elderly couple who ran the guest house spoke no English whatsoever and anything I tried to say could be contradicted by him.
“I help you pack!” he said with a smile.
I left the door open – propped it open with a book – and began to gather my things as quickly as possible. I might as well take him up on breakfast – get out of the room as quickly as possible and into someplace public. I really wasn’t amused now that getting more sleep was definitively out of the question. I didn’t speak to him but he didn’t seem to mind. He went through my belongings, peering at my ipod and speakers, flipping through my books.
“I think you rich! So many things! I think too much – you no need.” I was seething but felt powerless. I knelt on the bed, grabbing my backpack between my knees to tug on the zippers. He pushed me away to do it himself. “Too full, too full,” he criticized – couldn’t close it himself.
“Get out of the way,” I growled, pulled on the appropriate cinch straps, and turned to throw the last things into my messenger bags. He was hefting my backpack when I turned around. “Too heavy. You no carry. Too heavy for you. No good. I carry to boat.” The dock was a few kilometers from the guest house and I can’t say that the idea of having my bag carried disturbed me – but I still preferred him gone.
“Why won’t you leave?” I asked.
“Nola, Nola – I love you. You will be my girlfriend. We marry.”
“I don’t want to be your girlfriend, I don’t want to marry you, I don’t love you, you don’t love me, you don’t even know me.” I said as much the night before. It fazed him even less this time than before.
“Now you are packed. Sit down with me?”
“No. I must go buy a bus ticket. Before they run out.”
He insisted on walking with me to the bus station – his chest proudly thrown out and his feet at duck angles. He had a bit of a belly – he wasn’t fat by Western standards, but his gut was significant given his youth and race – and walked at almost an exaggerated waddle. Where I had previously felt pity and exasperation, I now felt only disgust. He was obviously proud to be seen next to me; I wanted nothing to do with him. I felt my teeth grinding. Well, I told myself, I’m about to get on a boat. And away. I bought the ticket and then sat down in a restaurant across from the dock – the same place I’d had dinner the night before, where he and his colleagues had picked me up to go for karaoke. He gestured presumptively at the young girl who worked there and barked orders. I stopped him from ordering for me – I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t have the money, and I didn’t want to be in his debt – just coffee. I just wanted a coffee. And to be on my own.
“We go back to your room?”
“I’m drinking this coffee.”
And I was. As slowly as possible. And staring out at the river and the morning light – without the slightest appreciation of the beauty. I was counting to a hundred in my head, over and over.
I had a bottle of water. I took a few pictures. We walked back to my room.
“Now we stay together?”
“No. Now I get my bag and get on the boat.”
“I want a seat.”
“Nola, Nola – ”
“No. I’m leaving. I’m going to Luang Prabang.”
“You go Vientiane afterwards?”
He already knew that I was. I nodded curtly.
“I don’t know.”
“You see me there?”
I narrowed my eyes and glared at him. I, somehow, couldn’t bring myself to be any ruder. It was a serious failing. A character flaw. Part of me believed that the entire situation was my fault; I felt guilty. Perhaps a deeper part of me was afraid of actually angering him. I felt my lips moving and heard my voice say “Maybe.”
I went back up to my room long enough to grab my bag. I considered locking myself in for a bit, but I’d already killed enough time – I did have to get on the boat soon. When I came downstairs he was talking to the man who ran the guest house, gesturing to his motorbike. This man was, apparently, too lazy to carry my bag as far as the dock again. I considered arguing with him, making a scene and carrying it myself – it’s really only hefting the bag and swinging it on that takes effort; once it’s strapped to my back it doesn’t seem particularly heavy – but bit my tongue. I was so close to being rid of him. I made sure to sit on the back of the motorbike without making any physical contact with him – I held to the back rack, sitting practically on top of my hands, and kept my legs spread widely enough that even all passer-bys could see the space between us. Neither of us spoke on the ride down.
He made no effort to touch me as I climbed off and took my bag, for which I was greatfull.
“Nola, goodbye. I miss you. I see you Vientiane. ”
“No. I don’t think I’ll see you in Vientiane.”
“I think so, Nola.” he contradicted. I turned around, wordlessly, and walked down the gangplank. I promised myself I wouldn’t see him again.
We would both, it turned out, be partially correct – I would see him, and hear from him – in Luang Prabang, not Vientiane. He would become even more frighteningly stalkerish but I would be with a group of friends by that point. He would see me walking down a street and start shouting. It would take me a minute to recognize his version of my name and I would be too surprised to be initially rude – I quickly and coldly promised to call him later; he called me, instead, demanding to meet immediately. I explained that I was busy and off-handedly suggested he meet me and my friends after dinner – we were going to a bar where a Japanese guitarist I’d met in Pai (Thailand) was playing.
“Where are you?” he asked. “My guest house,” I said from the porch of a cafe, stirring my iced coffee.
“Where, what room, you let me in?”
I refused. And telling him to leave me alone, hung up on him.
He called back and demanded again. I was angry enough, by this point, to yell into the phone. He apologized – casually, insincerely; I wasn’t sure if he’d even heard me – and I hung up on him again.
He sent a text message: “WHERE WHERE WHERE???” I realized it was going to take a face-to-face meeting and explicit telling-off – which, later that evening, with a tableful of friends backing me up (well, that and telling me to simply completely ignore him, change my cell number, and offering to answer my phone for me and tell him to leave me alone) I did.
Into his ludicrously smiling face I thanked him for his hospitality in Huay Xai and explained that I never wanted to see or talk to him again – I wasn’t his girlfriend, I was upset at the way he had treated me, and I wanted to be left alone.
He smiled. And nodded. And walked away.
It was a serious denouement.
(But for the epilogue – he called me five times that night and twice the next day – at which point I did let Martin and Benny jockey over who got to answer my phone – and, finally, with a last text message consisting of “FUCK YOU” did, in fact, leave me – wonderfully, happily, beautifully, and unharassedly alone.)
I even managed to get in and out of Vientiane without seeing him.
Turns out I was right.