We hitch to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We get there late, find a guesthouse and take a wander for no real reason. We hear music coming from a bar and enter. The place is definitely not for folk like us. It's clean, for a start. And the people working there wear shirts. Shirts, for Christ's sake. Patrons are sitting at huge long tables, dining and drinking quite heavily. And there's a band onstage, who, as far as I can gather, are a kind of rock n' roll variety act, complete poodle-haired guitarist and transgender costume changes. A couple drunk of guys go up and put notes in the lead singer's pants. It's all a little odd. We order an extortionately priced beer each, get confused by The Wealthy Laos Experience and leave for some much needed sleep.
We wake and begin hitching again, blindly stumbling through this country that neither of us really have a clue about. We're heading for Pakse, probably because we half-heard it was nice. But, secretly, I think it's because we desperately need to feel like we're not adrift. Trusty road 13 - the road we've been following throughout most of Laos - has become the foundation to build a narrative around, and Pakse has become the final chapter, the denouement to our epic traveling adventure. Everyone needs stories, even if they're being improvised in the fog of intoxicant abuse.
What follows is familiar, different only because of the tiredness and heat really getting to us now. Mr. Furious has to lie in the shade to gather himself, and I'm not far off the same. Fortunately, a truck pulls up, kicking off our ride to somewhere or other. It's on road 13, and heading toward Pakse, we know that much. Everything else is a mystery written in dust on a slip road.
It's here things start to noticeably crumble.
We hitch a ride with two lorry drivers- one deep into his forties, the other a fresh-faced early thirties. We go through the usual rigmarole: them asking for money, us saying we don't have any, and both parties trying to explain themselves without sharing a language. The guys eventually agree to let us in for nothing, and we squeeze into the front.
After an hour or two, the truck stops in a village. The older guy gets out, and goes to a house across the street, and is greeted by another man on the driveway. They head inside. We wait for a while, unable to ask the younger guy what's going on.
And we wait. And wait.
We see the older guy come out the house, go to a shop, buy two beers, and disappear back in again. We get out of the lorry and wait.
The younger guy gets out of the lorry, and disappears into the house. Throughout all this, there has been no attempt to explain to us what is going on. Mr. Furious and I wait around for a little longer, attempt to find a suitable place to urinate, and then decide to not bother with these guys anymore. Frustrated, we grab our bags, slam the lorry door shut and march down the road.
It takes ten minutes for another ride to come along. A sleek, clean, black car, steadily purring wealth through the dust and dried grass. The window silently drops. The driver - suit, slick back hair, sunglasses - turns to us. Familiar language block. We point frantically, gesticulating wildly. (Our miming abilities are beyond compare. A future in silent film awaits us both.) The front door opens, and we get in. Furious in the back, me in the front.
We introduce ourselves. His name, we think he says, is Jean (the french pronunciation). He puts his foot on the accelerator, and it takes around ten seconds to realise that he's drunk. Really drunk. A couple of weeks previously in Laos, we got a ride with a soldier who was ridiculously hammered and a bit mad. It turns out Jean beats this guy for drunk insanity hands down. Furious informs me later that he could see the reflection of Jean's eyes in his sunglasses. "They were all over the place".
After some attempt at conversation, we reach the conclusion that, even if he spoke English, he would still be an incoherent babbling wreck. He drives erratically. He spends too long not looking at the road. He gets very close behind motorcyclists before sharply turning to avoid them. Although I can't drive, I have had the privelidge of witnessing people drive before, and it wasn't like this.
Jean grabs my arm, slightly too roughly in that 'jovial' way drunk people do. I'm beginning to have flashbacks to our Thai driver who was also a bit liberal with what we used to rest his hand on, and the thought makes me shrink away against the passenger door. Just to make everything a little more mental, he reaches into his glovebox and brings out a medium sized pink paper bag. He presses it against my nose. It smells like potpourri. He then throws it on my lap. Being a polite potential murder victim, I hand him back the bag, smiling and saying thank but no thanks. He cackles in that way that only the truly mad can muster and, quick as a predator acting on the barest instincts, he reaches over and tweaks my nipple. He then lets rip another cackle. Yes, you read that correctly. He. Tweaked. My. Nipple. And it didn't seem sexually motivated, which just made it even weirder.
Mr. Furious doesn't notice this. I'm on the frontline with this lunatic. A car has never felt smaller.
Jean taps me on the shoulder. Reluctantly, I face him. With a thin, jabbering smile he makes his hand into a two-fingered gun shape. He leans his arm right across me, and points it out of the window. He then pretends to shoot things out of the window, making a little pow noise with each fictional bullet. He cackles that cackle which will reverberate in my nightmares for decades to come, and puts his hand on the steering wheel to hastily avoid slaughtering another motorcyclist.
At this point, I break.
"Can you stop now? Here is fine..."
He seems to ignore us. Both of us are getting a bit more urgent.
"Jean, this is fine, thank -"
He abruptly brakes. Somehow, he understood! Furious is immediately out with the bags. I go to open the front door. It doesn't open. My hand wrenches at the handle a couple more times. Locked. My brain races -
ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck he's going to kidnap me and strap me to this seat and make me smell his weird stuff in the bag and give me endless amounts of meth and tweak my nipples until one of us dies
- and Jean presses a button and I almost fall out of the car, slamming the door behind me. We stand and stare at Jean. As a parting gift, he makes his finger gun once more, and, taking aim, shoots me first, then Mr Furious - pow pow. He don't react. We just stare, gormless and dumbfounded. He cackles and speeds off down the road, disappearing into the stretch of concrete and dirt. I'd like to point out that all this happens in ten minutes. Ten minutes of chaos wrapped up in a tiny, scorching metal box, racing through a wasteland. Was that Hell? Did we just meet Lucifer himself?
Furious turns to me: "Did he tweak your nipple?"
Yes. Satan's incarnate tweaked my nipple. How many people can say that?
We half-joke of Jean coming back and gunning us both like the salty, dusty dogs we are. Thankfully, he doesn't. Although if he did, it would've made a great story. We hitch a ride into the next village, which seems to be a rural red light district. We find a guesthouse, and the guy who owns it generously offers to take us up the road to a bar which he drops his son off at his evening classes. This level of domesticity is very, very welcome.
We find a bar. Tinny karaoke irritating our ears, we sit, our brains vainly attempting to rearrange the last few hours. We get drunk. Two sex workers come and join us, chatting to us, drinking some of our beer and refilling our glasses/coercing us to buy more beer. This all annoys me slightly, as I just want to be left alone. The woman attempting to talk to me realises she's on to a lost cause, and is handed a wireless mic and starts singing in Laos. I think at this point I'm losing my mind, since when she hands me the mic I get up and begin to shout my poem The War On Romance over the music. This seems like the best course of action right now. The mic is wrestled from me after about four lines. A few minutes later, she decides to entrust me with the mic once more. Foolish! I do the same thing again, probably out of some base instinct to try and have control over one aspect of my life today. Again, the mic is deftly taken from me. At this point, I suggest we leave, and, wisely, we do.
As we stagger out, we bump into the older guy from the lorry earlier that day. One hand around a pretty young woman, another round a beer, he smiles a drunken, half-remembering smile at us. We half-smile back, and get the hell out of there.
There's been enough reality today, so we head back to the guesthouse to see if our dreams can offer anything better.