Laos is no place for an armchair humanitarian: tiny, flea-bitten children shit freely on the sides of roads, currency is so devalued that people carry their money around in backpacks, and flushing toilets are untenable luxuries that many have never seen.
But there he was, never the less. Miguel. A flamboyant Spaniard decked out in purple fisherman pants and yellow flip flops, clutching his woven satchel and grinning at me over the rim a piss-warm bottle of the local beer. We met one steamy January morning at a bus stop in the northern jungle. Circumstance dictated our short-lived friendship: we were the only non-native folks waiting for an already-packed vegetable truck headed for a distant and questionable civilization.
Poor Miguel. He was a diehard vegetarian, and he emanated a softness the locals seemed to sniff out. Barefoot kids dressed in rags flanked to him, begging bits of candy and coins. Piebald dogs pitched and rolled at his feet, exposing sore-covered bellies. And he just kept on grinning, in love with the world.
Things started going downhill almost as soon as the truck arrived. We each managed to snag a few precious inches of open space on the plywood plank that was running down opposite sides of the truck, and then we settled in for what was sure to be a hellatiously uncomfortable journey. Just behind us, a squat, middle-aged woman hoisted herself one-handed into the truck bed. In her free hand, she had a duck. Its feet were tied together and it was flapping around like crazy, most likely in protest of the fact that was carrying it by one splayed out wing.
The woman confidently inserted herself into a four-inch space next to me on the seat, cutting off all circulation to my lower body. Then, without looking, she tossed her still squawking dinner in the direction of the bench across the aisle. It smacked into the side of the bed beneath Miguel’s feet, then landed awkwardly against a bag of rice as the truck lurched forward. It let out a pitiful quack sound, then buried its face in its breast, shivering, trying to lose itself in some recollection, no doubt, of far happier times.
The woman wiped her hands together in a satisfied, Glad that’s settled kind of way, shoved a wad of betel nut into her cheek, and jammed her left elbow deep into my ribs in order to make a little more space for herself. The elbow would remain there for the rest of the 7-hour ride, but I hadn’t noticed yet. I was more concerned about Miguel.
He looked close to tears as he reached under the seat and pulled the shivering duck out. It quacked meekly as Miguel cradled it in his arms, whispering soft words.
They sat that way for some minutes, enjoying a private, shared misery. I let my eyelids flutter.
Suddenly, Miguel’s voice rang out in alarm. I opened my eyes. He yanked his hands, still cradling the duck, sharply upward and stared in horror at the crotch of his purple pants, which were now saturated with a healthy pile of gray-green shit. The duck quacked again, and a few more drops of shit oozed out and landed in the aisle. Miguel grew irritated and quickly shoved the duck back under the seat.
“Does anyone has a napkin?” He called out, wringing his hands.
Two crushed rows of faces started back at him. A toothless man hanging off the back of the truck giggled like a schoolgirl. His friends, also hanging off the back of the truck, quickly joined in.
Miguel looked jealously at the bandana I’d tied around my face, bandito style, for to keep out the jungle dust.
I shook my head at him. “No way.”
We were the both of us already covered in the brown stuff and I wasn’t about to sacrifice my favorite hanky on account of his altruistic ass. Besides, it was near impossible to breath without it, what with the roads being so dry. Definitely not my problem.
He whimpered and fretted a bit more and I slipped back into my reverie, muscling the fat woman for a few more precious centimeters of wiggle room. She clucked her tongue, spat a thick red mouthful of betel-laced saliva onto the floor between our feet, and the pointy elbow came at me again. I closed my eyes and tried to envision a cigarette.
As Miguel continued his lamentations, I licked my dry, chapped lips underneath the bandanna and fought back irritation. What had he expected? Barcelona, this wasn’t.
“Ooooh,” he moaned, gesturing toward his crotch. “I am so dirty.”
I knew he was talking to me, but I felt slightly guilty about the hanky situation, so I kept silent.
Then, a minute later: “I hate this rides. I always gets dirt in the pussy!”
This caught my attention.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“You know, in the pussy. It’s dirty. From the dirt, and now the shit!”
My mind whirled. Could he possibly mean…. Could he really have… I glanced back at him, noting his quivering adam’s apple and three-day growth of beard. That definitely wasn’t it. But then what was it?
Then it dawned. We were on the winding road to Luang Prabang, one of Laos’ more cosmopolitan cities. However, in a place like Laos, cosmopolitan really only means that you might be able to score a dented can of Fanta, or try your luck at a forty-year-old payphone that would probably just gobble up your coins anyway. To whit: one of the city’s proudest landmarks was a largeish hill called “Phoussy Mountain.” At the bottom of the mountain sat “Phoussy Restaurant” and, my personal favorite, “The Phoussy Hotel.”
That had to be what he’d meant. I smiled to myself under the hanky as Miguel attempted to flick the drying bits of turd off his pants.
Hours later, we emerged from the jungle and sputtered to a stop in the middle of town. Miguel and I peeled ourselves off of the wooden benches and stumbled out amongst the shabby colonial mess that is downtown Luang Prabang. I lit a cigarette and tried to work the life back into my nether regions. Everything ached.
Just behind us, the fat woman retrieved her dinner from under the seat, again by a wing, hopped nimbly from the truck, and scurried off down the road.
Miguel’s face looked pained as the quacking faded and then was finally swallowed up by the din of early evening foot and moped traffic.
I thought about inviting him out for a beer, but he still seemed sore about the bandana, so I nodded goodbye instead. As we turned to head opposite ways in search of guesthouses, our Lonely Planets in hand, he turned and called out, “I’m gonna have a shower!”
Then, gesturing toward his shit-stained crotch: “My pussy is sooo dirty! Ja ja!”
I was floored. Forget Phoussy Mountain, Phoussy Hotel. He really thought he had something called a pussy. Poor, poor Miguel.
I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. He just nodded, grinning inveterately, and skipped off down the dirt road.
I supposed, if were a nicer person, I would have disavowed him of this unfortunate lexical mixup in his otherwise respectable English vocabulary.
I didn’t, though. Cause if I’d learned anything that day, it was this: the world is pretty much a nasty place. And, well, you’re pretty much on your faithful own.