Saving Face in Vientiane

On what must have been my third attempt at pronouncing ‘post office’ in Thai, a smile of recognition started to creep across the tanned, craggy face of my Tuk-Tuk driver. “Ah, Prai Sa Ni,” he sang back as I hopped into his already spluttering three-wheeled taxi. With a burbling roar we headed off towards town, away from the Thai Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. The heat that morning was of the heavy-duty Southeast Asian variety: oppressive, relentless and humorless. My black suit and the Tuk-Tuk’s pleather seats only added to the feeling of being roasted alive.

As we bounced down the road in the general direction of the Mekong, I attempted to reiterate where I wanted to go, but my two years of living in Thailand had done nothing to improve my ability to form even the most basic of phrases correctly. I could string sentences together, but the dreaded tonal system would often get the better of me.

Thai and Lao are similar languages, and I thought I would at least be able to make myself understood. But here, as in Thailand, I still sounded like I was on the verge of having a stroke. A backward waved hand from the cockpit of the Tuk-Tuk partially assuaged my fear. I held on to my documents, made the best of a rapidly deteriorating situation and pictured myself drinking a cold beer a couple of hours later.

As with most horrendous episodes in far-flung countries, it had all started so differently the night before. I had taken the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Udonthani, a largely uneventful trip punctuated by fitful sleep and occasionally erratic driving (I had learned a long time before this to never sit in the front seats, the fear factor when overtaking on blind corners was just too much, notwithstanding the religious paraphernalia in the windows).

My reverie didn’t last. The closer I got to Laos, the more my problems manifested themselves. There were no direct buses from Udonthani to Vientiane back then, or at least I never found one. Upon arriving at the deserted bus station I looked around for some way to get to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. There was nothing apart from the sounds of Thailand stirring to life at dawn.

Of course, it wasn’t long before one of the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuks turned up and took me to the bridge, my gateway to Laos. It was a bit of a shocker to find it closed when I arrived. Apparently, I had arrived too early; there were no immigration officers available. I sat down on my bag, had a cigarette and waited.

Eventually, the officials took up their positions in the tiny little glass houses dotted across the road and I began my journey into Laos. A minibus carted me to the other side as no foot traffic was allowed, and then I jumped into a car that appeared to have come from far Beyond Thunderdome.

Almost an hour later, and several hundred baht lighter, I arrived at my destination, the Thai Embassy in Vientiane. In my rumpled suit, I joined the throng of people queuing up outside the giant front gate.

There was the usual sprinkling of Thai women and their Western partners, Lao nationals looking to get some form of ID or permit that would allow them to work in Thailand, and a smattering of English teachers, of which I was one.

As the gates opened everybody swarmed forward, and I grabbed a number to designate my position in the queue. Then we waited under a diaphanous canopy, in rows of horrendous plastic seats.

This is what traveling in Southeast Asia is really all about. There are flurries of activity, missed connections, scandalous unforeseen bills, intolerable sweating and the like, followed by times where you are just told to sit still and be quiet. The heat of Asia can soon turn the mildest person into a raving lunatic. It’s post-pill popping Neo, Matrix-like, liquid mirror cloying. That’s how intense the heat can be; your brain locks up, all of your coping mechanisms fail and you turn into someone else altogether.

After a period of profuse sweating the embassy doors opened and I trotted in, ready to get this over with so I could get on with having an ice-cold beer. I was there to change my tourist visa over to a 90-day visa, which would allow me to apply for a work permit when I got back to Thailand. I could almost taste the Beerlao.

The air inside was nice and cool; fevered faces regained composure, shirts became unstuck from bodies and a sense of decorum and goodwill permeated the atmosphere. We were all in this thing together! Knowing laughs and nods were exchanged amongst complete strangers as we sat and waited our turn to go to the wooden counter.

Before I knew it, I was standing at the wooden gateway to my new life, proffering the giant bundle of paperwork that both my employer and I had spent the previous two weeks diligently putting together.

I have never understood the reasons for what happened next. Could it have been my slightly over-eager smile? I wasn’t being particularly garrulous that morning either (I knew better than to be overfriendly in an embassy). Maybe it was my ruffled suit? Had hobo chic not made it this far into Southeast Asia? Could it be the dreaded ‘immigration official that has had a bad breakfast’ syndrome that was only spoken about in whispers in Thailand?

Only the demure, but stern, Thai immigration official really knows why she picked up my paperwork, and after only the most cursory of glances handed it back to me and said in English, “Your paperwork is not in order.”

I felt like I had been kicked in the groin. A hiccup like this was really bad news, as I traveled on something less than a shoestring budget. I wanted to scream, but I knew deep down that she wanted me to scream as well. In that split second, I saw what this was all about. It was a test. It was a battle between just her and I. Would I crumple like my suit? Or would I show her what I was made of?

Time was of the essence. I had only two hours to figure out what it was that she wanted before the embassy’s visa section shut for the day at 11 a.m. After that I would be out of luck, money, options, and possibly my full-time job offer.

Holding my voice as steady as I could, I asked her what the problem was. What did I need to do to remedy the situation? Steely-eyed, the immigration official explained my whole predicament to me, in Thai. What a worthy adversary she was.

At that point in my life I was just about able to handle ordering some food and drink in Thai, not engage in a formal conversation about Thai visa rules. Time appeared to stand still and the air hung heavy between us. The slightest crack in my composure would signal the end of my application. She leveled her gaze at me once more and said, “You don’t have an employment contract.”

The moment the words left her lips, my mind spun into action. I needed a phone! I needed to speak to my boss! Of course, my Thai mobile phone coverage stopped at the banks of the Mekong. It took about 30 seconds for me to remember how to say post office in Thai as I sprinted down the steps outside the embassy and into the street.

As it turned out, my trusty Tuk-Tuk driver really had no idea of where it was I wanted to go. In what was either a genuine mistake, or something plotted along with the woman at the embassy, he dropped me at a building that probably housed, given hindsight, the Laotian secret police. The next 20 minutes of my life were somewhat uncomfortable.

All of my documents were taken from me, including my passport, and I was interrogated in a room by two serious-looking men. By this point I had given up trying to explain the whole Prai Sa Ni thing and I just threw myself upon their mercy. In the end they decided that no spy in the world would be so fucking dense as to rock up at the headquarters of the secret police carrying a British passport and Thai paperwork. I was promptly thrown back out into the street. My driver was nowhere to be seen.

The next driver did know where the post office was; disheveled and unnerved I made it there an hour before 11 a.m. I forced my way into a phone booth and called my boss. The conversation was neither reassuring nor cheap.

“Tan, it’s Jamie. They have refused my paperwork! They say I need a employment contract!”

“What? What are you talking about? You can’t have one of those until you get your 90-day visa.”

I was in a dreaded Catch-22 situation, a terrible place to be in the world of Thai bureaucracy. My heart sank further. I poured my precious beer money into the phone and tried to get a handle on what was happening.

“What am I going to do Tan? I don’t have a lot of money, I can’t afford to stay here longer to sort this out. I only have enough for accommodation for tonight.”

“Well Khun Jamie, I think you need to go back to the embassy and tell her that you are right and she is wrong.”

This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was now going to become the proxy in a battle of wills over paperwork. By now I had burnt through all of my Beerlao money and I was eating into emergency accommodation funding.

Sensing that I was on the verge of a full-on mental breakdown, Tan took control of the situation.

“Go back to the embassy. I shall call them and straighten it out.”

“Are you sure Tan? What are you going to be able to do? What should I do if I…” Click. Money gone. It was Squeaky bum time.

Flustered and bedraggled I staggered back out of the post office. I was caked in dirt and sweat, and my shirt looked like it had been used to wipe down furniture. It was now or never. I flagged down another ride and climbed in. Back to the embassy I went.

That Tuk-Tuk ride was a long one. My whole dream of living in Thailand permanently hinged on getting that work visa. It looked like a blue passport and it was as rare as rocking horse shit to get one through a non-state school. It would allow me to do away with the soul-destroying monthly border runs to Burma. It would enable me to live as a regular person and be a professional, productive member of society; not just some slack-jawed tourist. It would exempt me from whatever confusing government edict had been issued that particular week for foreigners. All of that slid slowly out of view as I sat in the back of my puttering ride.

With the last ounce of decorum I possessed I got out of the Tuk-Tuk, patted myself down, straightened my tie and walked into the embassy. I passed all the laughing and smiling people whose days had gone according to plan. I strode with purpose up to the counter, not having to wait because almost everyone had been seen. I placed my identical pile of paperwork on the counter and stared around in the manner of a person who expected to be dealt with.

My nemesis approached from the rear of the office. Again the paperwork was glanced at.

“Your paperwork is not in order,” she intoned from the other side of the counter.

An aging, blond-haired surfer traveling with his Thai wife gawped from the seats in my peripheral vision. I took a deep breath, looked her straight in eyes and mastered my own destiny.

“I would like to speak to your boss. They have received a call about me, they just haven’t told you about it yet.”

The remaining people in the room fell silent. All eyes swiveled around onto the two of us. This was it. The immigration lady stood impassive, I searched her face for some sign that I had gotten through. None was there. I repeated my request, this time a little louder.

Without a word she pivoted on her heel and was gone. I stared at the clock as my time prepared to run out. Tears of frustration welled in my eyes. I wouldn’t go and sit back down. Everything was falling apart. I had the stupid fixed grin of a beaten man.

A different lady returned from an unseen room. She walked up to the counter, stamped my paperwork and told me to return the following afternoon to pick up my visa; Moments later she was gone.

I drank free beer that night with a crowd from a hostel, good people who wanted to help after they’d heard about my plight. The outdoor bars in downtown Vientiane throbbed with people. I soothed my blistered brain by the banks of the Mekong and prepared for whatever Southeast Asia would throw up next.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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