And Jesus said, if a town does not accept thee, shake its dust from your sandals–Or something like that. I went one better. I took off my shoes and pounded them against the side of the boat.
It pretty much started with our arrival in Pak Beng. Ninety people, 90 backpacks crammed below decks, one exit. As soon as we moored, 20 kids jumped on board, pulled up the two floor boards and dived under, pulling out backpacks and suitcases. You had to grab yours before it got off the boat, or they would try to charge you a porter fee. The opening was right next to the exit, so 100 people swarmed and milled, pushed and shouted. “That’s my bag. No! Come here. That’s mine.”
I usually go with the flow in these situations, but I found myself getting tense. One of our group left to find a guesthouse, and she’d given me a description of her bag. I grabbed what looked most likely and got off the boat as quickly as possible.
Since I carried 2 bags, I got grabbed and stopped and shouted at by porters and hotel mongerers. If any place has a bad vibe, energy, feel, socio-economic atmosphere, sour community psychology (I don’t care what you call it), it’s Pak Beng. By the time I got to the guest house, I was more tense than I’d been the whole trip.
I dropped my bag in the room and took off to find someone I’d traveled with the previous week that I’d seen on the street. I came back unsuccessful about 15 minutes later to find my travel partners arguing about the condition of the room with the hotel manager. They asked for a discount, and the guy turned into a jerk. Admittedly, one of the travelers was upset about the number of flies in the room, which I thought was frivilous, but when the guy started shouting, I was looking for an excuse to leave as well. Bartering is par for the course in SE Asia, and it didn’t seem like an unusual request, but instead of just saying no, he started getting angry and raising his voice. At one point he said, “you go look. You won’t find another place this nice for less.”
I believe that is where the problem started. In retrospect, I think that was a miscommunication and the root of what happened next. I’m sure he meant, “you won’t find anything cheaper.” But he threw in the “you go look,” which we took as an invitation to leave. Given his short fuse and increasing hostility, it seemed like an offer we couldn’t refuse.
So we looked, and we found, and we came back and grabbed our bags. The manager was waiting in front of our rooms. He was about 30 and well built. Stocky for a Laoation, but I still had about 40 pounds on him. He wore a black t-shirt that was too tight and gray jeans, also too tight. He stood with his arms crossed, hands under his biceps to make them bulge. He wore a constant sneer, and seemed like he was looking with contempt on everything that was not him. I got the impression that he learned how to act tough from bad Chinese martial arts films.
The women grabbed their bags from their room and he yelled at them, but they were a step ahead of me. As I tried to pass he put his arm out and tried to push me into the wall. I didn’t react except to continue walking. Then he grabbed my wrists. I reacted without thinking, twisting cleanly out, and then looking him in the eyes and pointed at his face. “Don’t you touch me,” I said angrily. He nearly jumped back. I think I scared him, and this, I believe, was my second mistake. He did not want to be challenged. He did not want to be frightened. He was a local tough, and my read on him was that he had lost face, and he had to prove that he was in control, that he could not be intimidated. This westerner could not come into his town for one night and challenge the position he’d established over years. I believe that if I’d kept my gaze down and just walked away, he would have let it drop (how I’d have gotten out of his grasp that way, though, I don’t know). The whole idea to leave was not mine, and I probably cared least, but this interactions suddenly made the whole scene mine. It’s ironic that I try to be the most respectful traveler I know, and I got myself mixed up with the Laos police over the simple act of defending myself.
Pak Beng is small, and the new guesthouse was not far away. The hotel manager followed us, yelled at the new guesthouse owner, and got another friend to interrogate us. He told us we owed him 100 baht for leaving. I told him to go away. When he tried to get in our room, I yelled and came at him, and he disappeared.
I had a bad feeling about the whole thing, and if there’s one thing that has consistently gotten me in trouble over the years, it’s not following my intuition. I told my friends that I thought we should pay him the 100 baht and be done with it. Both of them had traveled far more than I, and they both said, “no way. We don’t owe him a thing.” Well, there’s technically right and philosophically right and psychologically right. Technically we didn’t. Maybe even philosphically we didn’t because he was so hostile toward us. But psychologically I was uneasy. Something told me it wasn’t over.
–OK guys, sorry to leave you hanging on this one, but this is taking longer than I thought it would, and I have to go get something to eat. I’ll try to finish the story tomorrow night. Just to set everyone at ease, everything is fine.
posted Thursday January 2008