Thursday, April 30, 2009

Water, water everywhere!

Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) is an uneventful city 361 days a year.

But without planning on doing so, we happened to reach Mandalay for its wildest, most invigorating and ludicrous annual blowout: a four-day Water Festival marking the Myanmar New Year.

In the heart of the city are about 5 massive Water Festival stages, each surrounded by massive sound systems and each rigged with hundreds – literally hundreds – of neon hoses. The day we arrived in Mandalay, the officials turned the nozzles on. From that moment, pandemonium erupted.

Hundreds of locals leapt up on stage, grabbed a hose, and began spraying the street below. For every hose that was dousing the street, there were at least 10 more people below, dancing in the showers. There were young people and old people; men and women, drunk and sober. The one trait they shared in common is that they were all really, really wet. The temperatures in Mandalay were forecasted to reach 108 degrees that week, but no one cared. Businesses were closed. Schools were on holiday. The city morphed into a water park. And everyone was dancing in the streets.

Within minutes, the streets began to flood. The water ran off towards the curb and stayed there, clogging the city drains. It stood an inch deep, then two inches, then finally knee-deep, at which point small children decided that it was the closest thing to a swimming pool they’d ever seen, and began hurling themselves like cannonballs into the street water.

People carry empty water bottles, refilling it with all the water pouring from overhead or from the puddles down below, dump it onto the head of the nearest person, and repeat.

Teenagers take the opportunity to punk themselves out. They wear black hoodies with mesh lining. They spike their naturally black hair, then add purple or blue dye to the tips of their Mohawks. They draw dark circles around their eyes. The women wear electrifying red lipstick. The boys drink so much whiskey their bloodshot eyes soon match the girl’s lips.

The teens load themselves into the backs of their friends Jeeps and pickup trucks, packed in more tightly than sardines. Slowly they cruise through the mosh pit, getting soaked to the bone.

The water in the bed of the pickup truck grows ankle-deep. The interior of the open-top Jeeps get drenched. The driver doesn’t seem to mind. He alternately either sits behind the wheel or darts out of the car, grabs another friend on the sidewalk, shakes his hand, chats, chugs a whiskey, remembers that he left his car running in the middle of the road with 25 people in the back, and darts back to the driver’s seat again.

We go out into the street and – as obvious foreigners in a land almost devoid of visitors – become instant celebrities. We feel and act like politicians, always shaking people’s hands, getting photos taken with their babies at their request.

Our initiation begins as we walk towards the city center. We make it about 5 feet outside the hotel door before a young child runs up to us, splashes a bucket of ice-cold water onto us, and runs off. We step off the hotel stairs and onto the sidewalk. Another kid gets us in the face with a supersoaker. We turn left and begin walking. A grown man runs up to me, grabs the collar of my t-shirt, and pours a cup of water down my neck.

And so it continues, every step of the way, for five or six very wet blocks, until we reach the real scene of the spraying.

We know we’re getting close when we begin to see men lying face-up in the gutter, unconscious from too much alcohol. Then the blare of the music hits our ears. It sounds just like the past three decades of American rock music – The Cranberries, The Who – but all the words are redone in Burmese, and everyone’s singing along in a language we can’t understand.

When we get to the periphery of the crowd, locals begin to grab our shoulders and shake us.

“Are you happy?” someone yells into our faces as they shake my friend’s shoulders. “Are you happy?”

“Um, yes!,” she exclaims.

Someone else grabs my arm from behind.

“Happy!” he yells. He’s apparently either forgotten the words “Are you,” or the phrase “new years.”

There’s more of them, surrounding us, shaking our hands, grabbing our elbows. They try to speak but their words are slurred, their accents are thick, their vocab is limited.

“What your office?” someone says.

“Student,” I reply. I know better than to admit to being a journalist when I’m in a country where 1 out of every 10 people is a government spy.

“Wha our office?” he repeats.

“A student,” I say again.

“Wat our of fes?” he says. I piece it together.

“Wat our of fes …. wat-er fes … water fes! Water festival! Yes!”

The crowd around us grows thicks. Their heads wobble. My right hand is constantly being tossed from one handshake to the next. Someone is still gripping our shoulders. “Happy New Years! I love you!” the crowd screams.

And so it goes. We have dozens of conversations like this; maybe hundreds. We watch a man get on his motorcycle, but he’s too drunk to remember how to turn it on. No problem. His friend sits on the bike behind him, reaches around and grabs the handlebars. A third person gets in back and kicks the clutch. A fourth jumps onto the front of the bike. And off they ride, bouncing off the curb, onto the street which is now evenly running 6 inches deep in water.

We inch closer to the stage and water sprays directly in our eyes, our ears. We can’t see where we’re going. We can’t hear anything but the sound of George Michael’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” blaring from the speakers. I can feel someone grab my arm. “Are you happy?”

Blinking, we can faintly make out the sight of thick lines of motorcycles inching past us at hairpin-close range. If we move a split-second too quickly, or if the motorcycles misjudge us by a half-inch, we’ll end up with a nasty exhaust-pipe burn on our leg.

(In fact, several days after leaving Mandalay, while trekking through the mountains near Inle Lake, we come across a 22-year-old farmer with a third-degree exhaust-pipe burn on his leg. He hasn’t received any treatment and asks if we’re carrying a basic first aid kit. We wash his wound, clean the pus with some Q-tips, cut the scabs off with a Leatherman knife, apply some Neosporin and gauze, and tell him to go see the medicine man for some oral antibiotics. Then he shows us the gash on his hand. It’s obvious he needs stitches immediately, or he might be at risk of permanent nerve damage or even loss of limb. Already it’s gotten infected and his hand has swollen badly. We’re not equipped to handle an injury that severe, so we tell him to find a doctor; then we ask how it happened. “Water Festival,” he says, but his details are hazy.)

Deciding that being on stage, where there’s no traffic jam, is safer than being on the flooded streets, we snake around to the back fence and, with a smile, charm our way to the top row. Someone hands us neon hoses, and we let loose upon the crowd. I spot a cop trying in vain to direct traffic, and I turn the nozzle on him, spraying the officer full-force in the face. He staggers back, wipes his eyes, then tries again. This time, the woman to my right pegs him with a fire hose.

I start reflecting on festivals in America, where no one could point a fire hose directly on a crowd because of the very real possibility that the water pressure could burst someone’s ear drum. The pressure from a fire hose – for those of you who have never borne the brunt of its wrath – is unimaginably strong when fired point-blank.

Then again, if this were America, everyone would have to wear wrist bracelets indicating whether they were 21 or not. Security would be set up around the parameters. Food vendors would have to follow strict kitchen guidelines and pass a health inspection. A first-aid tent would be nearby. The guys lying unconscious in the gutter would be medically tended to, then arrested. Old ladies couldn’t sell dirt-encrusted unsealed bottles of Grand Whiskey for $1. No one could carry glass bottles into this crowd.

If this were America, this event would require parking. It would have orange cones and trash cans, police barricades and street sweepers.

In the U.S., the streets would have been designed by a road engineer, meaning they wouldn’t flood so unevenly, and the sidewalks wouldn’t have huge chunks missing where people could fall through to their waist. The motorcycle exhaust-pipes would be designed in such a way as to prevent it from burning flesh on contact.

In America, all food and alcohol vendors would need a license. They’d have to rent a booth. Here in Myanmar, anyone’s grandma can carry a pot of noodles to the festival and sell them for ten cents a bowl.

In America, companies would advertise at festivals of this size and scale. There would be corporate booths, raffles, prize giveaways. A sleek new car model would be on display. The local radio DJs would broadcast from the festival. All the beer would be sold in identical cups that bore the logos of the companies that sponsored the event.

At this festival, there was only one place with corporate logos; the stage itself. No where else were there any ads. Nor were there booths, or tents, or “Over 21” bracelets.

But then, Myanmar isn't exactly the Land of the Free.

According to the Web site of the U.S. Department of State:

"Burma (Myanmar) is an underdeveloped agrarian country ruled by an authoritarian military regime. The country's government suppresses all expression of opposition to its rule."

"The Burmese Government has a standing law ... that bans all gatherings of more than five people."

"The military regime carefully controls and monitors all internet use in Burma and restricts internet access through software-based censorship .... access to most “free” international e-mail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo is prohibited .... All e-mails are read by military intelligence."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Myanmar: Access Denied

Note: This will probably be the only time during my 3-week trip to Myanmar (Burma) that I will be able to post to my blog. The heavy-handed government has blocked access to most internet sites, including blogs (even this blog) and most email accounts.

The first 4 times I tried to access this blog, I was met with this message: "Access denied. Your system policy has denied access to the requested url. For assistance, contact your network support team."

Fortunately, entrepreneurial twentysomethings are much more computer-savvy than middle-aged bureaucrats. Some brilliant guys at a cybercafe, using a proxy server, were able to circumvent this firewall.

Without further ado, my take on Myanmar.


We decide to visit Myanmar (Burma) for two reasons: it’s closed to the world, and the world is closed to it.

Myanmar (Burma) has been ruled by a repressive military junta since the 1960’s, which locks the nation in complete isolation. It outlaws foreign companies from establishing a local branch. It outlaws taking Myanmar currency outside of the country’s borders, thus effectively shutting off all export-import commerce. It won’t allow books or magazines from other nations to come into Myanmar. It blocks web sites and even some e-mail servers. It stopped granting permission (visas) for foreigners to enter the country.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. The government DOES allow some foreign mineral-extraction companies to set up shop; high-ranking leaders take a large cut from this, as big as 5 percent, and live like kings. The government also tightly controls exports and imports, though the common people have established a thriving black market, on which they buy cheap Chinese imports with U.S. dollars.

Laypeople are so enthusiastic about getting U.S. dollars that they pay a pretty penny for it. The “official” exchange rate is 1 US dollar to 6.5 kyats. The government-owned banks will exchange 1 US dollar for 450 kyats. And the black market will trade 1 US dollar to 1,050 kyats.

The people of Myanmar led a popular uprising in 1988, followed by democratic elections in 1990. The military junta refused to acknowledge the results of the elections. They locked the leader of the democratically-elected party in house arrest. She remains in house arrest to this day. (She has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent resistance to the military junta, though she couldn’t go to Norway to receive her Nobel, thanks to the house arrest.)

In response, the U.S. and other developed nations have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, further isolating it still. There’s hardly a nation on earth that’s been as cut off from the world as this one. (Yes, yes, except Bhutan. I know.)

But a few years ago, the Myanmar (Burmese) government, desperate to get dollars flowing, finally started granting tourist visas to those who filled out extensive application forms in advance.

That’s how we found ourselves at the Myanmar embassy in Laos, submitting forms, photos and a scheduled day-by-day itinerary of our trip to a visa application official. (We also signed a pledge that we would not get involved in Burmese politics or social issues in any way, shape or form.)

Thanks to her rubber-stamp of approval, we are now in Myanmar.

After flying into the airport, we started searching for someone with whom to share a taxi to the city center. We found a 50-year-old Dutch man carrying a duffel bag with 4 pairs of roller blades. That’s right, 4 pairs. Plus 4 helmets, 8 elbow pads, 8 knee pads, 8 shin guards. He said he brought the equipment for his kids. But then he said that he was alone. His kids live in Holland. And he flew straight from Holland to Burma (via Bangkok) and that he is flying straight back. So his story makes no sense. But hey, it’s none of our business.

We step outside and this 50-year-old Dutch man bursts into song. He begins singing a Burmese song that roughly translates into “shake your booty, yeah, shake it.” All the Burmese men start singing along, laughing, clapping. This guy can really light up a taxi terminal, even at 8 a.m. after a red-eye in coach.

"What brings you to Burma?" I ask him.

He grins mischieviously.

"I'm here to meet a 21-year-old French girl." He winks.


Its 102 degrees in the capital, Yangon (Rangoon), with 100 percent humidity. This wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that electricity only stays on for about 4 hours a day. Throughout most of the afternoon, the power fails. This means no fan. No fan! Nothing can cool you down. From 10 am to 5 pm, you feel like you’re living in a furnace.

All we can do is lie on the wooden floor of our guesthouse (the floor is cooler than the mattress) and wave a hand-held paper fan in front of our face.

We stare at our electric fan – a standard little tabletop fan – and pray that it kicks back into gear. (It doesn’t). We also drink water, despite the fact that the water, like everything else in the refrigerator, has turned warm.

Then we realized there’s one place in the city that has air-conditioning. The movie theater! The daily afternoon power cuts don’t affect them. They must own a generator, or maybe an on-site power station.

We clamor to see the 12:30 showing. We don’t care what the movie is. We just want the air-conditioning.

I’m literal when I say “THE movie.” There’s only one screen in the movie theatre. You don’t get a choice of what you want to see. You see whatever’s playing.

Tickets range from 50 cents to $2.20, depending on how good of seats you want. All seats are assigned.

We opt for a mid-range seat -- $1.20 – the cheapest of the balcony seats. Balcony is literally an “upper-class” experience, because it has stadium-style seating. The ground-level seats are on a flat surface.

Before the movie starts, a notice flashes on screen saying that everyone must rise in honor of the nation’s flag.

An image of Myanmar’s flag waving in the wind begins to play. The clip looks like it was shot in the 1950’s. It’s discolored, grainy and sped-up. The sound system crackles to life and begins to play an off-key tune which I can only assume is the national anthem.

The audience gets to its feet, but midway through the anthem, sits down.

The day we went to the movie hall, it was playing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But the power was “if-fy,” to say the least. The movie halts in its tracks three times as all the power in the movie hall fails. Fortunately the movie is never paused for long; after a minute or two, the screen kicks back to life. More importantly, the inside air stays cool.

I’ve never been a movie buff in the U.S. In fact, most movies bore me. I’d rather be reading. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. I don’t read Proust. I mean, I’d rather read an issue of TIME. Or Glamour. Or Mary Higgins Clark. I’ll read anything. I’ll read the back of a cereal box. (I won’t read Dickens. I hate Dickens.) Anyway, my point is, I don’t normally care that much for movies.

But here in Myanmar, I can understand the glory of a movie. I understand how, by watching a movie, you step into a magical other world. You receive a respite from the Burmese gruel, from the dogs, from the cracked haphazard concrete slabs, from the guys hanging off the sides of buses acting as human rear-view mirrors and yelling instructions to the driver. You escape it all for 2 hours. And you step into a clean, orderly, beautiful world.

Our world, or at least our immediate surroundings, will be changing again soon.

Today we’re taking a (not air-con) bus to Mandalay, where the temperature is predicted to be 108 degrees, and the air is said to be caked with dust.

Lets just hope they have power. All I want is a standard little tabletop fan.


So here’s what I’ve noticed about Burma:

•The country has a 1950’s classic feel. The cars are old British ambassador-models. The people are dressed smartly.

•The air smells of beetlenut, and the streets are stained red with beetlenut spittle.

•Sidewalks consist of haphazardly strewn cement blocks jutting every which way.

•The sidewalk has huge gaps between the cement blocks, at random intervals. An inattentive person could tumble five feet down into a gaping hole.

•People crowd the sidewalks selling fried bread, wristwatch bands, umbrellas.

•Dogs are sleeping everywhere. On steps leading up to a store. In sewer gutters. Everywhere.

•Someone is blaring Celine Dion at top volume.

•For an inexplicable reason, a man on the street corner is carrying a baby in a box.

•If I wear a Burmese outfit, I can pass as a local. This gets me into ancient monuments for free.

•If it rains too hard, sewage water spills out onto the street.

•Every man, woman and child wears an ankle-length wraparound skirt.

•The women slather thick chalky yellow cream on their cheeks. It’s supposed to be an extra-strong sunblock.

•We’re staying in the Muslim quarters. There are several mosques nearby and we hear the call to prayer five times daily once again. I realize that in spite of its hardships, I miss traveling in the Islamic world. I miss the delicate curves of Arabic script above doorways. It makes modern Egypt beautiful.

•The mosque across the street has a sign inside that says “Live like Ali, die like Husein.” I have no idea what this means.

•The architecture of the Buddhist temples in Myanmar are a perfect combination of Thai-style and Chinese-style, fringed with a fiery Burmese flair.

•I realize I’ve gotten really good at identifying artistic and architectural styles of individual Asian countries. I can easily spot the differences between Chinese, Thai, Cambodian (Khmer), Indian Mogul, and now Burmese.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Vietnam: A History Lesson Up-Close

Sometimes I feel like life is one giant field trip. Everywhere you go, there’s a fascinating subject to learn or experience firsthand.

I never took art classes in school. The counselors said art classes “wouldn’t look good on a college application;” take a more rigorous set of electives.

Big mistake, but I was lucky enough to discover why firsthand.

It was in Europe that I learned an appreciation for the great artists: Van Gogh in Holland, Botticelli in Italy. And in the halls of the Prado Museum in Madrid, where I’d spend afternoon upon afternoon, I learned HOW to critically look at a painting. This is perhaps the most important art lesson of all.

This “field trip” mentality has stayed with me wherever I’ve gone. Japan was a lesson in haiku, Zen gardens, efficient interior design. Portugal loves to brag about its seafaring history. Laos was a place to connect with the countryside.

Vietnam is a lesson in history. It’s also a lesson in propaganda. The two are inextricably linked.

I began my study of the Vietnam War in by visiting Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. Sarcastically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American POWs, this was the prison where former Pres. candidate John McCain endured 5 painful years of his life, back when he was an anonymous, middle-class twentysomething.

The prison – now a museum – begins its tour with exhibits that show how much the North Vietnamese suffered when they were imprisoned at the hands of French colonialists. Display after display showcased the torture devices that were used – iron rods, metal spikes, a guillotine with a rusty blade. Wax figures posed as prisoners inside the cells.

Then the museum turned to its next display: after the French pulled out of Vietnam, and the country gained its independence, the North Vietnamese began using this site to lock up American POWs. But did they display the same torture devices?

Oh no. They showed photos of American soldiers playing basketball, strumming a guitar, reading letters from home. They showed photos of Americans decorating a Christmas tree, feasting on duck, hunched over a chess board. They made no mention of torture or suffering; they only showed smiling pictures of soldiers above placards noting that the Americans made a “temporary stay” at the prison. In their fantasy land, the North Vietnamese prison guards were loving, compassionate angels over the American POWs.

Which is a bunch of lies. McCain, for one, is permanently disabled as a result of the torture he underwent at Hoa Lo Prison. He can no longer lift his arm above shoulder-level. He hasn’t been able to in 40 years. While he was imprisoned there, he grew so desperate to escape that he tried to commit suicide twice. Clearly, his life wasn’t all Christmas trees and turkey.

The language that the museum used was also notable. The placards kept calling the North Vietnamese “patriots” fighting for the “unification” of their country.

History is written by the victors.

In South Vietnam’s museums, the language changed dramatically. They described themselves as “common people” fighting the North Vietnamese “occupiers” and “aggressors.” The Americans, they said, were their allies.

We met a man who was a South Vietnamese soldier and was shot in the leg during the Tet Offensive in 1973. He retired from combat life after his injury and moved to Saigon, where he aided the American troops in offices. After Saigon fell to the grip of North forces in 1975, he returned to his family farm. But times at the farm were tough, and he moved back to Saigon to gain under-the-radar employment. The North Vietnamese rulers required everyone to “register” and “apply” to move to Saigon, in an effort to keep former South Vietnamese rebels out, so he snuck into the city, an illegal alien in his former capital, and pedaled bicycle-powered carriages for a decade.

He still calls Saigon by its original name, refusing to yield to Hanoi’s dictum that the city’s new name is now “Ho Chi Minh,” in honor of the famous North Vietnamese communist leader.

The museums and battlefields in the South, which still show the craters that B-52 bombers dug into the earth, are told in a way that placates the victors, that agrees Vietnam is stonger and better now that it's been unified, North and South joined together, into a large socialist republic. But there still seems to be an undercurrent of rebellion there, maybe reflecting a tinge of that same undercurrent of rebellion that you see in parts of the American South, where people agree that the Union is better united but muse, under their breath, about their lost war for independence.

150 years after the Civil War, the Confederate flag still flies freely in the American South. With that in mind, its astounding how rapidly, and on the surface wholeheartedly, the Vietnamese South has unified with the North. Equally astounding is how swiftly the nation has rebuilt, and turned into a thriving economic power.


My Two Cents:

After going to Vietnam, I have less fondness for John F. Kennedy and much greater appreciation for Richard Nixon. While I think Henry Kissinger fouled Cambodia, I can sympathize – though I ultimately disagree – with the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to award him a peace medal.

Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ withdrawl strategy – take ground forces out, keep scant air forces and non-combat advisors in -- could be a useful model for today’s Iraq quagmire. But there’s a large, biting difference between Vietnam and Iraq.

Vietnam was a straightforward war: if the South lost, it was clear that the Viet Cong would become the new leaders. Who would become the new leader of Iraq, however, is uncertain. And that question, among others, is keeping us in. It’s possible Iraq might fall into the hands of a Saudi-backed, Iranian-friendly puppet government that runs the country and funds its madrasas. Or that a Taliban-friendly power might rise in the political vacuum the way it did in Afghanistan in the early 1990’s. Or – most frightening of all, and most likely – that an American withdrawl could leave behind a completely destable power vacuum without any rule of law and warring factions will compete for power.

If Obama’s team (Biden, Clinton) can smoothly withdraw while creating stability, they’ll be one of the greatest wartime presidential teams and deserving of a Nobel Prize themselves. If their withdrawl plans further the instability, however, their legacy as war leaders will be more bleak than Lyndon Johnson’s.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ride to nowhere

The bus that’s taking us to Vietnam looks like a 60’s-era VW van: blue, white and rectangular, with vinyl seats. A rock wedged behind the front tire poses as a parking brake. A large sign in its cracked windshield announces the buses’ destination: “VINH,” a city on Vietnam’s eastern coast.

At a bus station in Luang Prabang, the ancient Buddhist city in northern Laos, we meet our new ridemates. First onboard were two Londoners, only 2 weeks into their very first multi-month overseas trip, and not yet cynical. Hannah wore a stylish scarf set off against a grey beer t-shirt; her boy-faced boyfriend, Tom, acted as innocent as he looked.

Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Dave came on the bus next; though British, he was loud and excitable enough to be mistaken for an Aussie. He took a strong liking to Sally, the elegant, beautiful brunette riding back to her home in Hanoi, where she worked as an English teacher. Sally was polite, good-humored, friendly – in short, a real Minnesotan. There’s just no such thing as an unpleasant Minnesotan.

The cast of characters assembled – Hannah, Tom, Dave, Sally, and of course, Sara and I. Three Brits, three Americans, on a bus packed with Laotian men, all men, all heading for Vinh, Vietnam. We Westerners compared notes on how much we paid for our tickets – “I got quoted 220,000 kip by three different agencies, so that’s what I paid” – “Really? I only got charged 190,000” – and we contrasted how long we had been told the bus ride would take.

“We heard 13 to 17 hours,” Hannah said.

“They told me 22 hours,” Dave replied.

We place bets. Sally says we’ll reach Vinh by 11 a.m. the following day. I guess we’ll get in by 2 p.m.

Two Laotian men edge onto the bus, heaving a washer between them. This is a real, industrial washer – a Toshiba brand top-loader. As in, “washer and dryer,” but without the dryer.

Why they were carrying this contraption onto a bus was beyond me; certainly, I thought, there must be better ways to ship a washer.

The men knocked through the aisles, banging against seats and tripping over loose straps as they inched their way to the back of the bus, washer hoisted at chest level. Then they found the pile of backpacks we had dumped onto a seat and dumped the washer unceremoniously on top. It balanced precariously atop the amorphous blob of backpacks. I prayed the driver wouldn’t brake suddenly and send the washer flying.

Sally got out to have a cigarette and the washer-loading men begin to tease her. “Hey, what you do?” they mock. “What that?” Laos is a country where pretty women don’t smoke in public. They must wonder how she’ll ever find a husband.

The bus driver turns the ignition, forcing Sally to abandon her cigarette and rush back inside the bus. We pulled out of the station, rounded the corner, pulled off to the side of the street, and parked. We were 200 feet from the bus station, and we were stuck.

The Westerners had no idea what was happening, as usual. We did the only thing we could do: crack jokes. Sara looked out the window at a tailor shop across the street and quipped that we could really take advantage of this delay. “Anyone need to take your pants in?”

After an hour (“I think your 22-hour prediction was closer to the mark, Dave,”) we finally figured out WHY we had stopped: we were waiting for someone to load a motorcycle onto the bus.

After an hour of sitting by the roadside, someone pulled up on a 150 cc motobike and a gaggle of men loaded it onto the bus, balancing it in the aisle. The stench of gasoline filled the air. We’ll be riding with this fuel-soaked fellow passanger until someone discovers delivery trucks and towing.

90 minutes after our departure from the bus station, we finally leave the street we had started from. An uneventful hour passed, then another. We jumbled in our seats, vibrating from the shock of every rock and pothole on the road.

I tried to get some shut-eye, but the armrests wouldn’t rise, making for a fitful night’s rest. I looked at a nearby Laotian to see how the locals handled it. He was drinking whiskey through a straw from a plastic bag. Soon he had conked out.

We Westerners, the sober ones, were all awake at 2:30 a.m. when the bus pulled to a stop at a small town near the Laotian border. We had reached a small village, too tiny to have stores, shops or streetlights. All the other passangers were heading inside a private house. I followed them in, entering a bare, furniture-less room that held a gas stove in one corner and a TV tuned to soccer on the opposite wall. A lady was stirring ramen noodles over the gas stove, and scooping it into bowls for each bus passenger who approached.

The Westerners hung back, unsure whether this was included or whether it costs money. We had all spent our last Laotian kip before leaving. Since kip is a non-convertible currency, we didn’t want to carry it to Vietnam; it’s useless once we cross the border. As a result, all of us had empty wallets. We wanted to ask if the noodles would cost anything, but no one knew enough of the language. It’s a situation we get into a lot while traveling. Finally, we accepted the noodles. We were in a private house, after all. (Sure enough, no one asked for payment).

Sally stepped outside the house and lit another cigarette. A Laotian guy approached her and flashed a trading card – like a baseball card – featuring a naked white woman. She laughed nervously, like a polite Minnesotan.

We piled back onto the bus. The driver asked if anyone else wants a turn at the wheel.

Someone begins to drive, but the bus can’t handle the curves and slopes of the mountainous roads that separate Laos from Vietnam, and we chug along at 10 miles per hour. At 6:30 a.m., we make it to the border and everyone troops into the station to get their Laos Exit Stamp. We notice that most of the Laotian men, our fellow bus passangers, are now wearing helmets. Little green helmets.

“Do they know something we don’t?” Hannah asked.

Sara approached one of them and gestured at the helmet. The man motioned back that it keeps him warm.

We get stamped out of Laos, walk 200 yards across the no-mans-land borderplex, get stamped into Vietnam, and embark on our lumbering journey again. Around noon, we pulled into a little town for lunch.

“I think this town’s called Nokia Samsung,” Dave said, looking at all the ads. It was astounding how a place too small for a traffic light could carry so many cell-phone ads.

A bowl of noodles later, we’re back on the bus, and predicting that we’ll reach Vinh within 3 or 4 hours. We were half right. We were 3 to 4 hours from our destination. But the bus driver had no intention of stopping at the correct destination.

Instead, he pulled over about 20 minutes north of Vinh and ordered all the Westerners to get out. “You’re close enough,” he said, and then he got out of the bus himself, joined by a woman who I assume was his mother, a shrill lady with a pushy attitude who corralled us off the bus. Someone else took hold of the wheel and the bus continued north up the highway without us.

The shrill lady pointed us six Westerners, now stranded and penniless, towards a barn across the street. We all followed her in and then waited, unattended, in the barn for 20 minutes. Finally a man emerged, wielding a butcher knife in one hand and a green mango in the other. “Hanoi?” he asked. Sara, Sally and I – three of the six Westerners who intended to continue toward Hanoi – nodded yes. The other three, who intended to stay in Vinh, shook their heads no.

He pointed the knife toward the barn door and shook it. “Go,” he said, leading the way. Sara, Sally and I walked outside and saw that he was gesturing us to sit in his private car. “Hanoi.”

“How much?” I asked. The shrill lady, presumably the matriarch, grabbed my backpack off the floor and began putting it in the backseat.

“No,” I said, and wrested my backpack out of her grip. “How much?”

“150,000,” the guy replied.

“Too much,” I said, and Sally, Sara and I walked across the street and flagged down a passing minibus.

“How much are you paying to Hanoi?” Sally asked in clear Vietnamese to the passanger in the front seat. The man with the butcher knife and mango appeared behind her and said something in angry, rapid-fire Vietnamese to the passanger. The passanger paused and replied to Sally, “150,000.”

“He told you to say that,” Sally rolled her eyes. I distracted Butchie while she walked off and asked the same question, in Vietnamese, to a passanger sitting in the back of the minibus who hadn’t heard the exchange. Thank God we have her around, I thought.

“It’s 90,000,” she called to us. “Get in. I have Vietnamese dong. I’ll spot you until we get to an ATM in Hanoi.”

We loaded in. The man with the knife sat in the driver’s seat and began cruising north. I wondered who had been in the drivers’ seat before. Had he gotten out? Or was he a passanger now? And who would have driven this minibus if we had gone in the private car with Butchie? I just don’t understand the world of southeast Asian public transportation, other than that its filled with cronyism and cartels.

Our bus ambled down the highway, passing motorcycles with live pigs tied to the back, snorting and wheezing as they hung, upside-down, by the tailpipe. We passed a pickup truck with a two-story cat and dog cage filling the truck bed. We knew those cats and dogs were on their way to being someone’s dinner. It’s as common a dish as chicken here.

The three of us chatted all the way to Hanoi, and paused several times to think about our other half – Hannah, Dave and Tom, the three that got dumped only 20 minutes shy of Vinh. We knew they had no money on them, and the highway was too remote to have ATMs. The closest ATM, ironically, was at the bus station in Vinh. We hoped they’d be okay.

That’s the thing about bus transportation in these countries. Even when the ticket you buy is for “Vinh,” and the bus is clearly labeled “Vinh” on its destination sign, there’s still no guarentee it’ll get to where its going. If the bus driver is related to someone along the way, he can force you out of the bus, force you to buy a service from his brother, to complete the journey.

All you can do is note the absurdity of it. Make friends with a few Brits and a Minnesotan. And crack jokes. Anyone need their pants hemmed?